SOS on the Water

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

This column was originally published April 5, 2000.

Mariners in trouble at sea. This could have been us, but wasn’t.
“There’s an emergency in progress.” The tone of Dave’s voice was one of interest, not panic, so I knew it wasn’t us. “First real emergency we’ve picked up in years,” he mused.
I came forward from the stern to listen, the ex-paramedic in me paying close attention.

As the law requires, we were monitoring emergency Channel 16, but switched to 24 when Coast Guard Group Mayport asked the captain calling for help to do so.
The Coast Guard’s high antenna at the mouth of Florida’s St. John’s River put out a signal we could easily hear 30 air miles away on the river near Green Cove Springs, but we could not hear the other end of the transmission.
Base command’s calm, insistent questions provided clues for what had happened. A 21-foot pleasure craft -- named, probably to irritate a wife, “Wet Dream” -- had gone out for some early morning diving when a mishap occurred.

“Pleasure craft Wet Dream, this is Mayport Group. Is the diver still down or is he out of the water?” the voice of the Coast Guard asked. Pause for response.
“Wet Dream, this is Mayport Group. Is he unconscious?” Pause.
“Wet Dream, this is Mayport Group. What is the diver’s name, age, and sex?” Pause.
“Wet Dream, this is Mayport Group. Captain, can you give me your present lat-long?” Pause.
“Wet Dream, this is Mayport Group. Do you have someone certified in CPR?”

Each question had to be asked several times. We thought the small boat’s occupants may have been panicky, but once Mayport’s rescue vessel 458 reached them, we understood that it was difficult to hear even the strong Coast Guard signal over the roar of an engine at full throttle.
Basic information transmitted between parties in the rescue boiled down to this: The diver was a male, 17, unconscious and going into shock, and the Wet Dream was 27 miles out, heading for shore. While 458 was en route, the command center explored the possibility of getting a helicopter to the scene. Weather apparently prevented the Coast Guard helo from deploying.

Hard to believe. We were now on glassy water, under milky skies, but earlier there was a haze on the river, and we could imagine a fog bank obscuring the colder Atlantic.
“Four-five-eight, this is Group. Navy’s got two helos en route your location, will have to do a lift.”
But the Coast Guard boat rendezvoused with Wet Dream, picked up the diver and was making good time back to Mayport. The Navy choppers were diverted to the Coast Guard station and we heard a woman’s voice advise that someone with a hand-held radio was on the roof to guide them down.

“Four-five-eight, this is Group. What is the patient’s status? We’ve got his father on the phone.”
Unable to hear the Coast Guard’s small craft’s response, we could only hope for the best. What an agonizing Sunday morning this had become for some family on shore.
Anyone serious about coastal boating quickly develops great respect for the Coast Guard whose radio presence is competent, courteous, and authoritative. But the Coast Guard does not suffer fools gladly. Years ago, we were on Pensacola Bay when we heard with startling clarity a call of “Mayday! Mayday!” Looking around, we saw a large pleasure craft drifting purposelessly, with four men aboard.

They were out of gas, they said, and drifting toward the ocean. Seas were calm, they had not tried to anchor and were in no immediate danger. The Coast Guard informed them they would not dispatch a rescue craft, but would send some fuel via commercial tow. It was apparent the four amateurs thought they were entitled to free service from the feds.
You can spend days on the water and never hear the Coast Guard except for twice-daily updates of unusual conditions. But Dave remembers a day that had the makings of a multiple tragedy. He was sailing in the Gulf off Pensacola when he heard a report that a small boat with four people aboard had overturned. A nearby fisherman called it in and began pulling people out of the water.

On that occasion, after determining that all the boaters were accounted for, the Coast Guard asked for the color of the bottom of the capsized boat, how many life jackets each craft had on board, and whether both rescuers and rescuees were wearing them.
Suddenly, another call of “Mayday!”-- a couple reporting that most frightening of events, fire on board. They reported they’d put it out, but were drifting in open ocean without power. The Coast Guard sent their rescue boat that time, probably because the couple was, by their own description, “elderly.” Although I don’t know how old they actually were, I take comfort in thinking that the feds might send my generation help.

By the time Dave and I thought we’d have to go ashore next day and buy a paper to learn the outcome of the current mishap, there was one more transmission:
“Vessel calling Coast Guard Mayport Group, this is Mayport Group. Go ahead.” Pause.
“Vessel calling Mayport Group. The diver has been transported to the hospital at this time. Diver was unconscious, but regained consciousness during transport. Mayport Group, roger, out.”
[Sallie Satterthwaite of Peachtree City has been writing for The Citizen since our first issue Feb. 10, 1993. Before that she had served as a city councilwoman and as a volunteer emergency medical technician. She is the only columnist we know who has a fire station named for her. Her email is SallieS@Juno.com.]

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