Uncontrollable variables, such as weather, location, time of day or aging response boats and aircraft, presents every Coast Guard search and rescue crew with unique challenges. But, few cases present the confluence of obstacles the aircrew of CG6022 faced when they launched from Andros Island, Bahamas, last month.
Arriving on scene, 47 nautical miles offshore, with the 50-foot sailing vessel Arktur taking on water, Lt. George Menze and Lt. George Cottrell, the aircraft commander and copilot, had to position their helicopter in sustained winds at 35 knots. Using night vision goggles, the aircrew could see the vessel as it pitched and rolled violently in the seas and wind. The sailing vessel was a two-masted ketch, with no open areas for hoisting, and its swaying masts were a clear hazard for the helicopter.
The howling winds and heavy seas had forced the three sailors aboard below decks, making them initially unaware of the 6022’s presence. Menze and Cottrell placed the helicopter in a 70-foot hover and used the searchlight to alert the sailors who eventually moved above decks.
The decision was made to deploy the rescue swimmer, and Menze focused on adjusting the helicopter’s altitude with Cottrell calling out incoming swells. Petty Officer 2nd Class Sara Faulkner had requalified as a rescue swimmer days before and this would be her first case being deployed since Hurricane Katrina followed by a tour as a recruiter. She recalls the moments after she was lowered into the water.
“The boat I was trying to swim to was moving fast,” said Faulkner. “I seriously had my doubts if I would catch it and as soon as they lowered me down I realized just how fast the boat was being pushed away from me by the winds and the helicopter rotor wash. “
The flight mechanic for the 6022, Petty Officer 2nd Class James Nelson, was also battling the breaking swells as he assisted Faulkner from above, and was drawing upon what he learned from Advanced Helicopter Rescue School, a training that is held where the high seas thrash the Northwest coastline in Oregon. Without his focus, the basket and swimmer could easily become lost in the foamy seas.
“I’ve done a lot of medevacs in the past, in all different situations,” said Nelson. “But this is the first time I’ve actually used the swimmer and put them in the water with their fins on.”
Faulkner powered through the 20-foot swells and reached the boat, attempting to grab low hanging ropes in order to talk with the sailors. When a large swell pitched the stern of the vessel into the air, Faulkner disappeared under the stern, but maneuvered out of the way before the stern came crashing back down.
On Faulkner’s command, the sailors, one by one, took the plunge into the Atlantic.
Nelson raised the first survivor, as he contended with the breaking waves that periodically buried both Faulkner and the sailor in white foam. As the first sailor was hoisted, the winds and seas caused the vessel to drift 100 yards from Faulkner, and a rescue sling was used by Nelson to reposition Faulkner, and the second sailor was successfully hoisted.
With only one sailor remaining, it was decided to recover the remaining sailor in a sling deployment instead of a rescue basket to avoid burning out the hoist. After the ready signal was given, Faulkner and the last sailor were hooked together and hoisted into the helicopter’s cabin.
The 6022 aircrew battled nightmarish conditions and personal challenges as they rescued all three sailors aboard Arktur. But every success an aircrew has pales in comparison to the gratitude felt by those whose loved ones are now safe.
“When I heard Lynn’s voice from Nassau, a wave of relief and gratitude flowed over me. Relieved to know he was okay and gratitude that the Coast Guard was there and able to rescue them,” said Barbara Deedler, spouse of Lynn Deedler, one of the sailors rescued. “Because of them, our family has much to be thankful for as we start a new year.”
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