SAILORS AND RESCUERS
Seventy-foot waves batter a tattered life raft 250 miles out to sea in one of the world’s most dangerous places, the Gulf Stream. Hanging on to the raft are three men: a Canadian, a Brit, and their captain, JP deLutz, a dual citizen of the United States and France. The storm sank their sailboat, and now the waves repeatedly toss the men out of their tiny vessel. The captain, JP, with nine broken ribs, is hypothermic and on the verge of death. However, he is a tough-minded character, having survived a difficult childhood; now he must rely on those same inner resources to outlast the storm.
Trying to reach these survivors before it’s too late are four Coast Guardsmen battling hurricane-force winds in their Jayhawk helicopter. Once they commit to the rescue, they find themselves in almost as much trouble as the survivors, facing several life-and-death decisions, with the rescue swimmer in an emergency situation. Here is their thrilling story.
Jean Pierre de Lutz (“JP”)
Jayhawk Helicopter Crew
Nevada Smith (Aircraft Commander)
Aaron Nelson (Copilot)
Scott Higgins (Flight Mechanic)
Drew Dazzo (Rescue Swimmer)
C-130 Search Plane Pilots
Paul Beavis (Aircraft Commander)
Edward Ahlstrand (Copilot)
Search and Rescue (SAR) Coordinator
FLORIDA—COUNTDOWN TO THE CROSSING
The flight from Ottawa to Florida is a long one, but Rudy Snel doesn’t mind as he gazes out the aircraft window at the clouds below. He’s thinking about the next leg of his trip: a voyage on the Sean Seamour II, a forty-four-foot sailboat that will carry him and two others from Florida to France. Sailing across the Atlantic has been a dream of Rudy’s since he was nine, when his family emigrated from the Netherlands to Canada, crossing the Atlantic on a passenger ship. In the course of the voyage, they encountered a storm that caused the ocean liner to pitch and roll, making just about everyone on board seasick. But not Rudy. He was out on the top deck in the pelting rain having the time of his life, awed by the raging sea around him.
Rudy is now sixty-two years old and recently retired from a teaching career in the public schools. He finally has the time to live out his dream of returning to the sea. A Canadian with gray hair and a neatly trimmed beard, he is an adventurous soul; the hardships expected on a transatlantic crossing don’t bother him in the least. He owns his own sailboat and often sails the Ottawa River, but he has also mastered piloting small aircraft and parachuting. He has made more than six hundred parachute jumps. On one of those jumps, his parachute did not deploy properly. He looked up at the tangled mess during his free fall but never panicked. Instead, he calmly deployed his reserve parachute and landed safely. His reaction wasn’t one of alarm but one of annoyance.
When he saw a notice on a website announcing that a crew was needed for a transatlantic crossing, he immediately contacted the captain. Rudy explained that he wanted to go on the voyage to learn about offshore sailing and most especially because it would be an entirely new experience.
* * *
When the plane touches down in Jacksonville, Florida, Rudy disembarks and follows the crowd down to baggage claim. He is met by the captain, fifty-seven-year-old Jean Pierre de Lutz, who goes by the nickname JP. The two men shake hands and then head outside. The warm, humid air embraces Rudy, a welcome change from the cold of Ottawa. It is late April, the temperature is in the mid-eighties, and the sunshine causes Rudy to squint.
They drive directly to the Sean Seamour II, which is moored at Green Cove Springs on the St. Johns River. Rudy likes what he sees. The sailboat has a center cockpit protected by a hard dodger (rigid windshield), a single mast directly in front of the cockpit, and twin guardrails surrounding the white vessel. During inclement weather, the cockpit can be completely enclosed with canvas curtains and windows. It’s a sleek-looking boat—Rudy thinks it’s beautiful.
The third crew member, Ben Tye, emerges from the boat’s cabin. JP introduces the thirty-one-year-old sailor to Rudy. Ben is British, with a short, stocky build and a shaved head. He began his career in the tourism industry, but he soon turned his interest to the sea, teaching inshore sailing on small vessels. He has sailed from Europe to the United States, and on this trip he will reverse course. Reserved by nature, Ben tends to take time before opening up. But that night at dinner, he already feels comfortable and is more than satisfied that the threesome will make a good crew. He’s impressed that JP has spared no expense in equipping the boat and is taking his time readying it for the crossing. In his quiet manner, JP patiently explains the intricacies of his vessel, and Ben senses that this is a man who never gets rattled.
Ben and Rudy don’t know it, but JP had more than a dozen candidates answer his request for a crew. He interviewed each applicant, narrowing them down to two crew members, relying on his instincts to determine who would be the best fit. He was more than sure that Rudy and Ben were the right men for the job. JP selected May as the optimal time of year for an eastbound crossing of the Atlantic, primarily because it would put them ahead of hurricane season. He’d had a brush with a hurricane in a prior crossing and wanted no part of another.
The voyage is not scheduled for another few days because the Sean Seamour II was in storage for two and a half years and needs a complete overhaul, cleaning, and provisioning. Some of the equipment was removed and stored in an air-conditioned warehouse. Now that equipment needs to be inspected, replaced if necessary, and secured in its proper position aboard the boat. Rudy and Ben will work under JP’s supervision.
The preparation introduces Ben and Rudy to the inner workings of the boat as they replace lines, clean equipment, and practice using the pumps. The two men lay out the drogues (pieces of fabric that can be trailed behind the boat to add stability during storms) on the dock.
A vital piece of equipment on any boat is a radio beacon, which can signal to land that the boat and crew are in distress. These beacons are crucial in the telling of this rescue, and the two kinds referred to throughout the book are:
• GPIRB—global position indicating radio beacon, which can send a signal to the Coast Guard quickly pinpointing the location of an emergency
• EPIRB—emergency position indicating radio beacon, an older piece of equipment that sends a signal but does not use GPS technology
The life raft and the GPIRB went out for recertification, and the entire crew now reviews their operation before securing the two pieces of safety equipment. In addition to the GPIRB mounted in its cradle inside the cabin of the Sean Seamour II, there is also an older EPIRB from an earlier boat of JP’s on board. Although it is a somewhat redundant piece of equipment, JP has tested its eleven-year-old batteries and the unit works, so he decides to keep it on board. He installs the EPIRB in its cradle on the inside of the cockpit’s dodger, where it’s safe from sea spray. The EPIRB is water-activated, and the captain doesn’t want any false alarms.
JP reviews the heavy-weather contingencies with the crew, making sure they understand exactly what needs to be fastened down in a storm. They examine the location and operation of all safety equipment. One person will be on watch at all times, and they will all wear safety harnesses with tethers clipped to the boat at night and in heavy weather. The tethers are six-foot-long lines: if a man falls overboard, he will not get swept away from the vessel and can try to climb back on board.
The time spent working on the boat has been valuable for the three sailors to get to know one another before heading out to the open water. Rudy is glad for the few days of preparation; if he found anything of concern about his crewmates, he figured he could always back out of the voyage. He knows a transatlantic crossing has its risks, and he wants to feel extra comfortable with his partners. They will be in close quarters for several weeks. Rudy has a good feeling about both men. Ben is a knowledgeable sailor and a fun companion, and JP is soft-spoken, easygoing, and competent.
Departure is scheduled for May 1, 2007, but the men have to wait an extra day for some new batteries. This one-day delay will have significant consequences.
Text copyright © 2016 by Michael J. Tougias