Last June, Capt. Clay Hughes and his colleague Capt. Kendrick Schwartz were launching a boat from a nearby ramp when Hughes, the owner of Sea Tow Ocean Isle in North Carolina, got a call from his dispatcher. She’d heard a mayday call over VHF Channel 16 from a boat in distress near the notoriously treacherous Shallotte Inlet. Acting quickly, Hughes jumped into the boat while Schwartz jumped into a second Sea Tow vessel on hand, and the two raced toward the boat in trouble. As they approached the scene, Hughes observed a powerless 24-foot cruiser adrift near a sandbar, the waves pushing it closer and closer to danger. A couple with their two young daughters, ages 4 and 5, remained on board as the boat took on water. Hughes and Kendrick had to act fast before the situation spiraled out of control.
What, you thought being a Sea Tow captain was just about bringing you gas or providing a tow? Sometimes they have to save lives too. Here are five stories of Sea Tow captains who went beyond the typical job description, braving rough seas and tough situations to help boaters in danger. Read how they saved the day and what we can all learn from each experience.
As the 24-foot cruiser drifted closer to the sandbar along the beach, Hughes and Kendrick took different approaches to the distressed vessel. Hughes, more experienced with the local waters, ran outside the bar and tried to approach them from behind. Kendrick approached from inside the bar, hoping to find a way to get close.
“The boat was in no-man’s land,” recalls Hughes. “I was trying to figure out how to get to them without being stuck in the same situation.”
Just then, a set of three breakers rolled in and hit the boat hard to starboard. Overwhelmed, the boat quickly started going down. The whole family, wearing their life jackets, jumped in the water. Fortunately, the outgoing current swept them over to Hughes, who quickly pulled the girls into the boat before helping the parents over the transom. Within minutes, only the bow of the boat remained above water as Kendrick circled the debris field to salvage the family’s personal possessions.
Hughes ran the family to a local fire-department boat. The crew rushed them to shore and checked them over; all were unharmed by the incident.
“The Shallotte Inlet is notorious because its sandbars are always shifting,” says Hughes. “Unfortunately, we see a lot of this here.”
This story had a happy ending, largely due to the family’s actions. “They all had on life jackets. The dad made a mayday call over the radio, not the phone, and gave his exact coordinates from the GPS,” says Hughes. “The only other thing he could have done was drop the anchor, but it happened so quickly, he didn’t have time.”
Leap of Faith
On a fall day on Shelter Island Sound, Long Island, New York, a crew of six were running across the bay in a 37-foot go-fast boat when the driver suddenly lost control, ejecting himself and his five passengers into the water. He was not wearing his kill switch, and the boat kept running in circles at a speed just over 20 knots. Capt. Bill Barker, owner of Sea Tow Eastern Long Island, headed toward the runaway vessel, accompanied by Capt. Garrett Moore.
When the two arrived on scene, the six boaters had been safely removed from the water, but the boat still spun dangerously out of control right off the busy waterfront of Greenport, with no signs of stopping. Barker, a 100-ton Master and Sea Tow’s first franchise owner, deftly matched the speed and course of the runaway go-fast and pulled up alongside it. Moore, in a daring move, jumped from Barker’s Sea Tow vessel into the cockpit of the runaway boat and successfully killed the engines, preventing it from causing a serious accident.
The U.S. Coast Guard recognized the two captains with Meritorious Public Service awards for their efforts to stop the boat. Had they not done such a stellar job, who knows what would have happened?
Weekends off the coast of southeast Florida are always busy, and on the morning of June 19, 2016, Sea Tow Capt. Joe Leonardo of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, was already keeping an eye on a boat struggling near a reef just outside of Hillsboro Inlet when a couple on a personal watercraft approached his vessel.
“They were frantic,” recalls Leonardo. “They told me they’d collided with another PWC.” Leonardo followed them back to the other watercraft, where a woman was bleeding profusely from injuries on her leg.
“She looked like she’d been bitten by a shark,” says Leonardo.
Apparently, the two couples had been joyriding with each other when one PWC stalled out. The other PWC, still going at a fast speed, collided with the stalled one, its bow running right into the female passenger’s leg.
With the help of the stalled PWC’s driver, Leonardo pulled her over the transom of his boat and brought her to the bow, and used his shirt to wrap her leg and stem the bleeding. Acting quickly, Leonardo first called for an ambulance to meet him at the fishing docks at a marina just inside the inlet. Next, he alerted the local port authorities that he would be violating the no-wake zones to bring the injured woman back to the dock.
Due to Leonardo’s fast response and quick thinking, they were able to get her the medical help she needed within minutes of his response.
“I’m sure if I didn’t get to her,” Leonardo says, “she would have been bad off.”
The weather could not have been worse off the Atlantic coast of eastern Long Island on Mother’s Day 2013. But Stan Stiansen, owner of the 45-foot commercial vessel Pauline IV, had gone out anyway, because that’s what commercial fishermen do. Upon returning to port after a successful haul, Pauline IV got into trouble in Shinnecock Inlet, and Stiansen put out a distress call.
“I was sitting in the office when I heard the call over the fire-department band, and I jumped in the boat,” says Capt. Les Trafford of Sea Tow Shinnecock. “Nobody else was going out. I grew up here, so I was sure it was someone I knew.”
The waves that day, measuring 6 to 8 feet offshore, doubled in size when they stacked up on the sandbars around the inlet. Stiansen, 85 years old with decades of experience, got hit by a 15-foot rogue wave.
“Stan caught a bad set,” recalls Trafford. “The first wave caught him from behind and put the boat on its side. The next wave went over the decks and washed the deck mate, Scott Finne, over.”
Trafford, a 19-year Sea Tow veteran and 100-ton Master, ran his 24-foot Starfire out of the inlet. Its flush decks helped him shed water in the rough surf, and his twin MerCruisers totaling 800 hp helped him plow through the inlet.
Unable to get close to Pauline IV, which at this point was stuck on a sandbar, Trafford started circling the debris field, looking for signs of life. A police helicopter arrived on scene and helped guide Trafford to Finne, who had drifted a mile offshore.
“He was clinging to a plastic net buoy and a piece of wood,” says Trafford, who pulled him out of the cold water and saved his life. Unfortunately, Stiansen had been trapped inside the boat’s cabin, and Trafford was unable to rescue him.
While Stiansen and Finne knew the danger of running an inlet in rough seas, most people don’t. Trafford estimates he’s pulled more than 30 people out of Shinnecock waters in his 19 years working with Sea Tow.
“It could happen to anybody,” says Trafford. “Stan got caught in shallow water at just the wrong time. I’ve seen guys in their 20-footers try to do the same thing.”
Last Father’s Day, a dad and his three sons hired a local charter captain for a day of fishing outside Masonboro Inlet, near Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. The captain had them fishing on the tip of the rock jetty, using his trolling motor to keep his 22-foot center console safely away from the rocks. But when the trolling motor gave out, the captain couldn’t get his outboard started in time, and the waves quickly swept the boat into the jetty. Another angler, fishing on foot from the jetty, called for help over a VHF radio. Sea Tow Capt. Ryan Saporito just happened to be patrolling the inlet in his 26-foot Twin Vee not 100 yards away from the jetty and heard the call.
“I raced around the corner, and they were already on the rocks,” recalls Saporito of that day.
Just then, a set of 5-foot waves rolled in, knocking the charter captain out of the center console and pushing the boat up onto the jetty at a 70-degree angle. Saporito quickly heaved them a line, hauled each of the four passengers to his Twin Vee and pulled them out of the water. The charter captain was able to swim safely to another nearby vessel.
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Thanks to Saporito’s decisive action, the whole incident was over in about three minutes.
“The captain had tried to start his engine and drop his anchor, but it all happened so fast,” says Saporito. “If I hadn’t gotten there in time, those four passengers would have been in the water as 4- to 5-foot waves pounded them against the rocks. It would not have been good.”