Two sailors were in for the trip of their lives as they set out sailing from Florida to Greece in May 2011. But the trip of their lives didn’t end in Greece, it ended in the shelter of a Coast Guard helicopter’s cabin.
The 45-foot sailing vessel Eva was 150 nautical miles southeast of Cape Cod and had hit a nasty storm early into their journey. Water was streaming in and the vessel’s pumps could not keep up. The pounding winds had ripped the mast off the vessel and shattered its windows. There was no doubt; these sailors were in trouble.
The crew of CG6004 from Air Station Cape Cod was launched and arrived in the last known position of the sailing vessel. The 6004 aircrew conducted a search to locate Eva in the tossing 30-foot waves and Chief Petty Officer Randall Rice spotted the vessel.
Spotting Eva would be just the first of many challenges for Rice, the crew’s rescue swimmer. The wind had done its worst and the surrounding waters were littered with sails, line and debris. The aircraft commander initially made the decision not to lower Rice into the water due to the extensive debris, but after further assessment it was determined deployment was required in order to save the two sailors, one having sustained a back injury.
Rice entered the water and swam towards the vessel in the 30-foot swells. As Rice approached the vessel he noticed the majority of the rigging and sails were in the water off the port side of the vessel, with a few lines floating by the back of the boat where he was planning on boarding.
“Before I could climb aboard the vessel I had to clear a few lines that were in the water because I was worried I would get tangled up in them,” recalled Rice. “On boarding the vessel I had to consider where the debris was, but also where the lowest part of the vessel to climb on board.”
He climbed aboard Eva and began preparations to hoist the sailors. But with the waves and wind tossing the vessel and extensive noise and movement all around, Rice had to focus on communicating with the sailors.
“After I climbed aboard, the helicopter was hovering close by and I signaled to the helicopter to back away so that I could talk and assess the state of the two crew members that needed assistance,” recalled Rice.
In addition to focusing on the safety of the two sailors, Rice also had to concentrate on communicating with his fellow aircrew.
“Before I left the helicopter, the crew came up with a game plan on how we were going to retrieve the two crewmembers from the disabled sailing vessel. During the rescue I was using hand signals for the deployment of the basket and the ready for pick up to the retrieve the basket,” recalled Rice. “I was also watching the flight mechanic and at times he would point in the direction of the breaking waves to tell me that a large set of waves were approaching. At one time during the rescue after I signaled for the basket, I noticed the helicopter was not approaching the sail boat, the helicopters actions told me that there was a large set of waves approaching and it was too dangerous for a basket pick up.”
With focus and determination, Rice executed each hoist from the deck of Eva as waves battered the sailboat. The two sailors may not have made it where they intended, but they were alive.
If you ask Rice – a 23-year veteran of the Marine Corps and Coast Guard – about the mission, he’ll tell you he was just doing his duty. With 16 years as a Coast Guard rescue swimmer, rescues like those aboard the Eva become almost “normal.” But they are anything but normal. What Rice did that day was exceptional. It was heroic. And it is what Coast Guard men and women do, day in and day out.