Captains with the nation’s largest fleet of towboats for recreational boaters spend a lot of time on the water. As they routinely respond to boats with dead batteries, broken motors or running aground incidents – over 70,000 such requests for assistance annually – eventually they’re bound to run into real danger. In 2015, five captains that serve TowBoatUS towing locations in FL, TX, MD and CT found deep trouble, acted without hesitation and saved lives. These Good Samaritans were recently selected by their peers and honored at a ceremony held at the annual BoatUS Towing Services conference in Jupiter, FL.
Capt. Jason Ness of TowBoatUS Tampa Bay was honored with a “Woody Pollack” award, named after a well-respected towboat captain in the fleet who died at an early age. Four additional Meritorious Service Awards were bestowed to Capt. Michael Windham, TowBoatUS Clear Lake, TX; Capt. Sam Benson, TowBoatUS Baltimore, MD; Capt. Tim Hyatt, TowBoatUS Mystic, CT; and Capt. Mac McLean, TowBoatUS Pensacola, FL. These are their actions:
Woody Pollack Award: Capt. Jason Ness, TowBoatUS Tampa Bay, FL
It was a late fall morning under deteriorating conditions when TowBoatUS Tampa Bay received a call from a small 22-foot fishing boat with a dead engine, adrift some 40 miles offshore. With the remnants of Hurricane Patricia in the Gulf, time was of the essence as the vessel was drifting northwest in excess of two-and-a-half knots on the wind driven seas.
After a short discussion with company staff, the decision was made to launch as soon as possible with Capt. Jason Ness, or Capt. Jason, as he’s known around the bay, at the helm of response boat TowBoatUS #3. The forecast called for worsening conditions and complicating matters, the fishing boat’s sole means of communication was restricted to a string of text messages.
About half way out on the 38 nautical-mile run from Pass-a-Grille Inlet to the stricken vessel, the two-to-three foot seas increased three-to-five. Along the way, two other updated positions for the stricken fishing boat were obtained, but around 10:30AM all communication was lost.
Shortly before noon Capt. Jason arrived in the area of the boat’s last known position. With seas building, he proceeded along the line of drift at an optimal speed of 10 to 12 knots and was able to locate the vessel – which was now overturned with two people in the water clinging to the bow.
Working alone in less than ideal conditions, Capt. Jason expertly maneuvered his vessel in a position to pick up the first individual by use of the aft boarding ladder. The high winds forced Capt. Jason to reposition his vessel in order to rescue the last remaining survivor a few minutes later. Once aboard, he found both were suffering from mild hypothermia and the immediate use of an onboard blanket helped stabilize the anglers.
The overturned boat was left to get another day. Approximately three hours later, the two survivors were safely returned to dry land and Capt. Jason was assigned his next case. (Raw video of this incident can be found at https://goo.gl/2CGRwM)
Meritorious Service Award: Capt. Michael Windham, TowBoatUS Clear Lake, TX
Capsizing on open water can mean life or death to a boater suddenly finding themselves bobbing in the sea. As a wall of thunderstorms approached Galveston Bay late one spring day last year, two kayakers found themselves in the water unable to re-board their swamped craft.
While TowBoatUS is not an emergency rescue service, Capt. Michael Windham of TowBoatUS Clear Lake TX, overheard on his VHF radio US Coast Guard (USCG) Sector Houston hail “pan-pan” asking mariners to provide urgent aid to two persons reported a few miles south of the Kemah Channel.
Leaving Clear Lake and with USCG permission, Capt. Windham raced through the empty channel’s no wake zone and was on scene in less than five minutes, finding just one kayaker in good condition hanging on to two semi-sunk kayaks. Windham asked the kayaker for the location of her friend, and then headed where the woman pointed, proceeding cautiously.
While conditions were calm, skies were threatening with lightning coming from a not-so-distant wall of dark storm clouds. Knowing how difficult it is to see a single person in the water and concerned that he may run over the swimmer, Capt. Windham proceeded slowly until he saw the woman’s head barely above the water. She made a feeble attempt to raise one arm – it was clear she had no strength left.
Capt. Windham safely brought her aboard and within minutes both kayakers were safely ashore – including the kayaks. (Raw video of this incident can be found at http://goo.gl/tTbfu4)
Meritorious Service Award: Capt. Sam Benson, TowBoatUS Baltimore, MD
Sandy Point State Park is Maryland’s largest public boating area. It’s 22 boat ramps make it a hub of activity for trailerable boats and the summer of 2015 was marked with an especially high number of boating accidents that involved small vessels overloaded with people not wearing life jackets. Many of these incidents included fatalities.
Early one Sunday afternoon, Captain Sam Benson of TowBoatUS Annapolis was delivering fuel to a boater when the Coast Guard “pan-pan” was broadcast after a motorist on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge had noticed an overturned vessel in the water below.
Without hesitation, Capt. Benson quickly turned around and sped to the scene of the reported sinking vessel. Six minutes later he found six family members had been thrown into the water when their small powerboat overturned. Three of the boat’s occupants were able to swim to the safety of the rocks around the base of a Bay Bridge pillar.
However, three others, who were not wearing life jackets, were being swept away from the bridge. Benson expertly manuevered to their aid and safely brought all three aboard. They were soon transferred Maryland Natural Resources Police vessel and all survived.
Meritorious Service Award: Capt. Tim Hyatt, TowBoatUS Mystic, CT
On the Connecticut coast, “Hens and Chickens” aren’t favorite fowl but a rocky outcropping known as a magnet for snaring unsuspecting mariners. Visible only at the lowest tides, it’s been the scene of many a tragic grounding. On the afternoon of June 12, Capt. Tim Hyatt was at the helm of his towboat in Old Saybrook, CT when he heard a mayday call from a vessel that had just struck the dark black rocks and was taking on water.
Hyatt immediately got underway and was on scene just 10-minutes later, but there was no boat in sight. Another report on the VHF radio soon clarified that the stricken vessel was a short distance away off “Water’s Edge Resort” near Westbrook, CT. The captain of the holed vessel had gunned the doomed, 45-foot motor yacht’s engines in an attempt run to for shore to beach the vessel. Hunting down the vessel, Capt. Hyatt found only the yacht’s bow pulpit protruding from the water, with a one lone survivor clinging to it.
As emergency responders arrived in a fireboat at the same time, they plucked the man from the pulpit while Hyatt continued to scan the area and found two more men in the water a short distance away. Hyatt carefully maneuvered over to them. One survivor had on a life jacket, and the other, an older man, was clinging to a seat cushion. With water temperatures in the upper 50’s, both were pale, scared, and cold. As Hyatt prepared to recover the older gentleman, the ailing man let go of the floatation too quickly and sunk below the surface.
The survivor wearing the life jacket was able to grab him and keep the old man’s head above water while Capt. Hyatt pulled and lifted both men into the safety of the towboat. Hyatt, a paramedic, identified the early signs of heart distress in one survivor, and had both immediately transferred to the fire vessel for EMS care ashore. Both survived.
Meritorious Service Award: Capt. Mac McLean, TowBoatUS Pensacola, FL
It had been a long day. Captain Mac McLean, or “Capt. Mac” to friends, had already spent six-and-a-half hours in tow and had just completed a salvage operation on a sinking vessel. The weather was deteriorating rapidly as he came across Pensacola Bay enroute to his homeport in Bayou Grande, FL. The forecast called for severe thunderstorms and high winds on the edge of a front pushing through in excess of 45 knots with sideways rain and waterspouts throughout the area.
As he rounded the turning basin at NAS Pensacola, Captain Mac spotted an overturned Hobie Cat being pushed at a pretty good rate downwind in the gale force winds. He decided to get a better look and drove closer to the vessel.
On scene, he noticed someone being dragged in the water behind the small overturned catamaran and further investigation revealed that there was not only a man, but also a young girl holding on to the man. Capt. Mac immediately instructed his deckhand to remove the diver door and prepare the life ring to take people aboard. Once alongside he asked the man if he would like to be retrieved from the water. He motioned “yes” to Mac at which time Mac asked him to release the line he was holding on to and float free of the vessel as it was dragging them down pretty quickly.
The little girl was wearing what appeared to be an adult life vest that was being pulled off her body by waves. Once they were free of the vessel, Capt. Mac set upwind of them and drifted towards them on the diver door side. His deckhand then pulled the pair on board to safety just as the small catamaran cartwheeled across the bay breaking its mast and separating the pontoons.
Captain Mac made sure the passengers were okay and notified the USCG that he had recovered two people from the water and was in route back to their home inside Bayou Grande. The USCG spoke with the man and closed the case after it was determined there were no significant injuries and the pair were safely aboard the TowBoatUS vessel headed for the survivor’s home. Upon arrival at the house and full of joy, the awaiting family never knew it was private towing operator that had rescued their loved ones and assumed the red boat was with the US Coast Guard.