With over 600 tow boats spread across North America, the law of averages dictates that, eventually, BoatUS towing captains will be thrust into the middle of life-threatening emergencies. BoatUS Towing Services recently honored five of its captains – four with Meritorious Service Awards and one with the BoatUS “Woody Pollack Lifesaving Award” – at a ceremony that recently capped off the group’s annual conference held in Clearwater Beach, FL. The Woody Pollack award is named after the well-respected towboat captain in the fleet who died at an early age.
“Sometimes the routine of a normal day is interrupted by a life-threatening mayday call or an incident that unfolds in front of them, and our captains step in without hesitation,” said BoatUS Vice President and Director of Towing Adam Wheeler. “They are not in the rescue business, but their actions save others. We are very proud of them.” US Coast Guard Chief of Search and Rescue, Captain Peter Martin, presented the awards on behalf of Boat Owners Association of The United States (BoatUS). Here are the details on the incidents:
1. Woody Pollack Lifesaving Award: Captain Sean McKinney of Vessel Assist Lake Havasu, AZ
One Saturday afternoon last summer, Capt. Sean McKinney was providing a routine tow to a BoatUS member in Havasu Springs Marina until piercing screams shot through the field of boat slips. McKinney quickly dropped the tow and found the source of the sound a few slips way – it was the mother of a seven-year-old boy who had jumped off the stern of the family’s powerboat as the boy’s father was backing into the slip.
Carrying his first aid kit, just like the one he had in the US Army as a combat lifesaver, McKinney raced into action. The boy had two deep prop cuts to the bone on the calf, and was bleeding badly. Captain McKinney quickly applied a tourniquet, advised Vessel Assist Lake Havasu Base to summon help, and continued to care and comfort the boy and his family for 20 minutes before emergency responders could arrive to the remote location. The boy was medevac’d to a Phoenix hospital and survived. McKinney’s quick actions, and his ability to keep the boy and his father calm during the emergency, saved the life of the young man.
2. Meritorious Service Award #1, Capt. Joe Burkett, TowBoatUS Fernandina, FL:
On a midday fall afternoon last year, four ladies were boating on Florida’s St. Mary’s River in Fernandina Beach, when the BoatUS 24-hour dispatch center indicated a boat was disabled near the mouth of the river’s entrance channel. During the call, it became clear that one aboard the vessel had gone for a swim, was caught in the unexpectedly swift current and swept away from the boat – without a life jacket. Capt. Joe Burkett was requested to respond immediately and dispatch notified US Coast Guard sector Jacksonville, FL.
Arriving on scene within 15 minutes, Captain Burkett started a search pattern down current. Burkett strained his eyes to locate the woman and was only able to see her when he noticed her arms occasionally break the water like a dolphin, as she attempted to swim to a nearby jetty. The woman, shaken, was safely brought aboard.
3. Meritorious Service Award #2: Capt. Mitch Kramer, TowBoatUS Oyster Bay, NY:
The sky over New York’s Long Island Sound had been ignited moments earlier by an extravagant 4th of July fireworks display – and was suddenly bright again with the light of a signal flare illuminating a marine disaster unfolding just moments after the show. A 34-foot cruiser with an unimaginable 27 persons aboard had capsized in the maelstrom of hundreds of vessels all departing the show at the same time, and people were trapped. Captain Mitch Kramer of TowBoatUS Oyster Bay was soon on scene, strapped on his fins and mask, stuck an air hose in his mouth, and plunged in among the dozens of boats that had responded. Adult passengers were frantically trying to free three children, from ages 8 to 12, from inside the boat’s cabin.
A hot summer night rainstorm swept in, knocking the half-submerged boat around making it impossible for Kramer to push past the debris and canvas covers, squeeze through a hatch, or open the cabin door. After many futile attempts with the boat upside down and submerged, Kramer was finally forced to retreat. The body of one girl was found before the boat sank. Two other children who were trapped aboard lost their lives as well.
4. Meritorious Service Award #3: Capt. Harold “Smitty” Smith, TowBoatUS Sandy Hook, NJ:
Shortly after lunch one early fall afternoon last year, Captain Smitty of TowBoatUS Sandy Hook heard a distress call on the VHF advising of a collision in the Shrewsbury Channel near a cove popular with boaters and known for its sandy beach. Captain Smitty responded to the scene where he found a capsized boat and two persons in the water. Smith quickly brought accident victims aboard, one with severe internal injuries.
As he sped to shore, he notified the Coast Guard who arranged for EMS to meet them at the dock. The more seriously injured boater had to be medevac’d to a local trauma center, and both survived.
5. Meritorious Service Award #4: Capt. Robert Estrada, TowBoatUS Lake Lanier, GA:
Last June, with the boating season in full swing, 13-year-old Griffin Prince was with his 9-year-old brother, Jake, aboard the family’s pontoon boat when it was struck by a fishing boat helmed by a drunk driver. Both Griffin and his brother were killed. In the mayhem and carnage of the collision, Griffin’s body fell overboard and along with debris from the mangled boat, descended to the depths of the lake.
They were lost to recovery divers and grieving parents for nine days before a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) with a camera was able to locate the boat debris field, ultimately allowing the divers to recover the child’s body at 113 feet below the surface. The ROV camera, borrowed from a friend, was volunteered to law enforcement authorities by Captain Robert Estrada of TowBoatUS Lake Lanier, GA. Estrada paid for its rush shipping to the lake and also remained part of the search and perimeter operation throughout the entire recovery operation.