Ice. Freezing temperatures. Blinding conditions. These are hostile environments to perform the Coast Guard’s missions, but for the men and women of the Great Lakes, it just comes with the territory. A Coast Guard Station Marblehead airboat crew faced these very conditions as they hit the ice to rescue stranded and disoriented fishermen on Lake Erie. The conditions were certainly not ideal, but by day’s end, the airboat crew would ensure 22 fishermen had made it off the ice.
It all started when the station received a call from local law enforcement relaying four ice fishermen were trying to make it back to shore but were lost in a sudden snowstorm on Lake Erie.
Airboat coxswain Petty Officer 2nd Class James Hassinger and his crew of Petty Officer 2nd Class Gregory Penny, Petty Officer 3rd Class Matthew Woodring and Seaman David Contreras launched their special purpose craft airboat, a unique shore-based response resource introduced to select units in 2009.
With visibility less than 500 yards, CG201240 arrived on scene with the fishermen, who were safe but disoriented due to the snowstorm. Departing towards land, the airboat crew noticed three more people behind them. The three turned out to be a father and his two younger sons who also needed assistance finding their way back. The airboat crewmembers, relieved that the fishermen were safe, escorted the fishermen back to the launch ramp.
Their relief did not last long, however, because before they even made it back to the station, they received a radio call alerting them of an ATV that would not start and another group of ATVs that were disoriented.
With sunset fast approaching, the crewmembers knew that they had to maintain focus heading back out on the ice, where one wrong move can be the difference between coming home safe, or disaster.
The airboat crew found both groups of stranded ATVs, but as they headed back towards shore, they came across a three-foot-high pressure ridge, an area of the ice that is cracked and pushed together due to changing temperatures and expansion of the ice.
The crew tried to maneuver around the jagged edges of the ridge, and traveled east to find an opening. Leaving the ATVs to one side, the crews checked to see if the ice was strong enough to hold, but each time they crossed they broke through.
The airboat could not find good ice, but instead found more fishermen who could not transit over the ridge. As the airboat crew continued to search for an opening, they found an additional 12 fishermen who were trying to cross the ridge.
“We tried several times to cross but kept breaking through at the pressure ridge,” recalls Penny. “We decided it would be safer to leave the ATVs and transfer the people back to shore on the airboat.”
The weight of each load and a dwindling fuel supply would be a limitation as they crossed the ridge, so the decision was made that Penny and Woodring remain on the ice as Hassinger and Contreras ferried people in, four at a time.
With all the fishermen finally safe, Hassinger and Contreras picked up their two crewmembers and head back, for the final time, towards the station.
It takes a certain amount of grit to perform search and rescue missions in the Great Lakes, with Mother Nature throwing everything she has your way. But despite the ice, cold and snow, airboat crew CG201240 persevered, and 22 fishermen made it off the ice that day. But more important than making it off the ice, CG201240 ensured the ice fishermen made it home.
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