Co-authored by Senior Chief Petty Officer Gregory Zerfass, officer-in-charge, Coast Guard Cutter Sawfish.
The Coast Guard is a truly unique service; our maritime, multi-mission and military nature allows Coast Guard men and women to perform a range of operations and missions. One Coast Guard patrol boat recently brought these words to life and established themselves as an exceptional multi-mission crew.
Coast Guard Cutter Sawfish was returning form patrol after the completion of a migrant-interdiction mission. With migrants aboard, they were set to repatriate them the following morning.
As they began their transit home, crewmembers heard a distress call over the radio. The sailing vessel Second Chance needed medical help, but because of their position, they were out of radio range from any other Coast Guard unit.
Sawfish responded to the call and arrived on scene just before sunset. A rescue helicopter was on its way from Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater as the crew embarked the injured mariner.
Most hoist operations between a helicopter and patrol boat are conducted from the back of the boat, which has more room. This wasn’t an option for Sawfish however, due to the presence of migrants. The aircraft and cutter decided the hoist would have to be completed from the bow, or front, of the boat.
With the boat pitching sharply, two crewmembers and the injured mariner were sent forward. The crewmembers encountered water rushing over them as the helicopter lowered the rescue basket. They were focused and determined to keep the mariner out of harm’s way, and they battled the water as the man was hoisted to safety.
Sea conditions continued to deteriorate with 30-knot winds and building eight-foot seas. The remaining sailor aboard Second Chance was becoming ill in the conditions and soon required assistance in safely navigating the vessel.
To provide relief for the sailor, two of Sawfish’s crewmembers, Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Simon and Petty Officer 3rd Class Samuel Taylor, transferred to the sailing vessel. Throughout the night, no sleep was had as the slow speeds greatly exaggerated the pitch and roll of the cutter.
“When I was initially sent to the Second Chance to assist, I felt excited for the opportunity to help out,” recalled Taylor. “I quickly realized that the sea conditions and distance to Key West would challenge our endurance, as the trip would take over 15 hours.”
Dawn rose aboard Sawfish to bloodshot eyes and a lot of coffee. Salvation came in the form of a boatcrew from Station Key West who took the Second Chance into tow to safe moorings in Key West, Fla.
Two missions were just not enough for Sawfish’s crew, however. Within 30 minutes of transferring the sailing vessel, Sawfish began to copy radio traffic from a nearby tanker vessel that had sighted a raft with migrants aboard.
Sawfish again pushed out beyond the reef to pursue the mission.
The patrol boat arrived on scene to find a 15-foot raft with 15 migrants aboard. They had been at sea for five days and were out of food and water. Several were in a very weakened state and each of the migrants was transferred using the Sawfish’s small boat. Demonstrating superior seamanship in challenging sea conditions, the coxswain, Petty Officer 1st Class Carl Jester, was able to keep each passenger safe.
“It was a true test of stamina and determination to ensure that the cutter’s crew and migrants were safe during each of these events,” said Jester. “I have been fortunate to have received some excellent training and experiences throughout my career. During times like this, training and experience allow for you to overcome some of the fatigue and accomplish missions in difficult environments.”
After transferring the 23 embarked migrants, Sawfish pulled into homeport having accomplished more than they set out for, under some of the more challenging conditions a patrol boat can face in the Florida Straits. Finally moored, the crew proved once again the multi-mission capability needed to meet the maritime challenges of today.