Rescue At Sea

Too often ignored, the Coast Guard has a daily impact in Hawaii, from finding lost boaters to busting drug shipments to keeping our harbors secure. MidWeek rides along for a search-and-rescue training mission

Steve Murray
Friday - May 27, 2005
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With the nightly news being a constant reminder of the job done by America’s men and women in uniform, it seems odd that the one service that has the greatest impact on individual Americans is the one most often ignored.

To many, the United States Coast Guard is just the keeper of buoys who spend their afternoons in bright orange helicopters over Hawaii’s best beaches. But for anyone who has found themselves in a precarious situation at sea, there is nothing more wonderful than the sight of a Coast Guard vessel coming in for the rescue.

Kenneth Kazmarek dangles from a bucket
after being pulled from the sea

This past week (May 21-27) was National Safe Boating Week, and the people whose job it is to see that you come back alive are asking for just one thing — your assistance in helping them save your life.

“There is a cultural dynamic here that has respect for the ocean that you don’t find in other places,” says Lt. Cmdr. Thomas Meyer, a HH-65 helicopter pilot at U.S. Coast Guard Air Station, Barbers Point. “In Miami it’s not like that. Here there are not a lot of cases of people doing stupid things.”

That being said, Hawaii-based Coast Guard members have already tagged 51 boaters for safety violations just this year. Last year the number was 131.

Meyer, who was previously stationed in the south of Florida, says people don’t always use common sense when it comes to ocean safety. That means knowing the environment and having the correct equipment that will make it easier for a rescuer to locate you if the worst happens.

Adam Carlisle and Andrea Duck
haul in a basket as part of rescue
training exercises

Finding a person in the ocean is not an easy thing to do. From 500 feet in a C- 130 airplane traveling 150 knots, a person is just a speck on the water. Dropping to 200 feet and slowing to 130 knots during a tighter search is not much better. Think trying to spot a mouse on the side of the freeway as you speed along in an 18- wheeler and you get the idea of how difficult it is to find a person among the expanse of the ocean.

“You’re looking for just a head, and a lot of people are not wearing the standard equipment, that is, the vest with the reflective tape,” Meyer says. “Rarely do you get that quality of case where people are floating in the water with those requirements. So it’s difficult.”

A boater has an almost unlimited number of gadgets to help rescuers get to them. Public Affairs Chief Petty Officer Marsha Delaney says one of the best investments a boater can make is the purchase of a 406 Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon. “It’s a great way to take out the search in search and rescue,” she says. She added that this device can also be a big help to hikers.

The device can direct the Coast Guard to your location, and it can be loaded with personal information that may be helpful to rescuers. Delaney says the unit retails for about $500 — quite a drop from the $3,500 it cost just six years ago. Other items available are a variety of flares, signal lights, flags, dyes, noise makers, mirrors, even an orange T-shirt can help reduce your time in the water, Delaney says.

When an accident at sea happens, it’s the folks at Coast Guard Group Honolulu on Sand Island who get the ball rolling. Using computations that take into account wind, ocean current, the amount of time since the accident happened, readiness of the crew and, yes, the type of signal equipment you have, a search area is created that normally covers 100 square miles. The decision then has to be made of what kind of vessels need to respond. If it’s close to shore or an exact location is known, a small boat from the Sand Island station may be enough. But as the unknowns increase, so do the number of people needed. The Coast Guard may even enlist civilian ships, including the Coast Guard Auxiliary, to speed recovery.

A flight aboard a C-130 during a training run is an impressive display. The crew of seven working together to find that elusive spot on the water. The aircraft shakes loudly as the tail section opens, allowing spotters sitting tethered to the deck and just a foot from the edge, to have a better look at the water below. At hand are a number of devices to help the person in the water. Flotation devices, smoke flares or food and water containers are all within reach.

A spotter in the front of the plane calls out, “Mark, Mark, Mark” as he spots the person and calls out the location. The others visually pick him up and try to maintain contact as the person bobs up and down with the waves. The untrained eye sees nothing more than churning water. Coming around again, decreasing altitude, the plane remains while directing a helicopter or boat to the person.

Raymond Carter and Andrea Duck
search the sea for a lone man

Even though the flight crew knows the location of the “victim,” it still takes three or four passes to locate him. Imagine how much more difficult it is finding someone when all you have to go on is old information and an area to search larger than the Big Island.

Coast Guard District 14 includes Hawaii, Guam and a handful of people in American Samoa and Saipan. About 1,300 Coast Guardsmen are responsible for an area that covers 12.2 million square miles. And they’re expected to be ready for nearly anything at the drop of a hat.

Though Sept. 11, 2001 seems to have changed almost everything, Meyers says the Coast Guard’s role is pretty much unchanged. The service is still in charge of maintaining navigation markers, providing port security, enforcing maritime laws, busting drug runners and human smugglers and, most important, being an unlimited rescue force.

A Coast Guard plane, copter
and boat work together

“No two cases will ever be the same,” says swimmer Scott Gordon, a 14-year veteran of the service. “We do so many different missions. I’ve been lowered down on just about anything you can imagine — a cliff, a boat, even land. You never know what’s going to happen when you’re on duty.”

Though the pilot, or other senior officer,may be the one who is overall in charge of the operation at the scene, the rescue swimmer must be able to take control.

“There is a culture of leadership that permeates the Coast Guard,” Meyer says. “When Scott (Gordon) goes into the water, he has to know that some decisions are his to make and to know that he has our blessing.”

It’s not easy becoming one of the only 300 swimmers in the service. The 16-week-long school tests not only the students physical stamina, but more importantly, their mental strength as well. The washout rate is greater than 50 percent.

“You’ve got to want to do it, and you’ve got to have the mental capability to do it,” Gordon says.

“Physically it’s not that difficult as far as the minimum requirements go. They put as much stress on you as they can, because they have to know that three years down the road when you go out the door of a helicopter that you are on your own and that you have the mental status to get through it.”

Part of that not-too-hard physical portion says a swimmer must be able to operate in heavy seas for 30 minutes and battle an instructor who at times has to portray a person so in fear of drowning that they become a danger to the rescuer.

In the past three fiscal years, the District 14 members have saved 531 lives and $5.3 million in property. They have also lent a hand in supporting the tsunami relief effort early in the year, and flew supplies to American Samoa following the destruction from tropical storm Olaf.

Kenneth Kazmarek gets pulled to safety inside
the helicopter

Not all in life is difficult for those stationed at the area now known as Kalealoa — especially for those with gold on their shoulders.

The wardroom above the hangar that holds the copters is a near-perfect bachelor pad. Seven surfboards wait on racks to be taken across the street. A bigscreen TV with cozy couches stand next to Foosball and air hockey tables. A conference table separates the kitchen area that includes a refrigerator, stove, microwave and even a working beer tap.

Saving lives may be rewarding and at time a bit stressful, but it doesn’t mean that time in the service has to be all rough.

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