By Izzie Hayes
You might be amazed to know how many rescue efforts for hapless sports participants are staffed by VOLUNTEERS. On the ski slopes, when the “shushing goes awry” or the tree moved into the wrong spot, the skier that shows up with the basket for your rescue may be a recreational skier intent on your safe extraction in this or any emergency. His or her only recompense is the free access to the slopes he loves. They serve—without pay—because they love to make a difference in a sport they love.
On the water, where things can go wrong suddenly and with devastating consequences, THE U.S. COAST GUARD AUXILIARY, has a cadre of boaters that serve on the waterways of our nation with their boats and their highly trained skills in life saving efforts. All volunteers, they spend hours in training sessions and keep their vessels equipped and ready to move.
Water rat that I am, that appealed to me. I joined the Auxiliary soon after we moved to the Chesapeake Bay Area in Maryland in 1980 and became a highly involved member in the training portion of the Auxiliary mission as well as patrols on the water. The member training was topnotch. Included were navigation skills, safety requirements, navigational markers and light signals, use of the marine radio, weather, and everything a trained boater should know. The materials were similar to the training texts used at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, CT. A rigid testing program was in place and kept us on our toes!
About that time, Maryland enacted a law that required every boater born after July 1972 to have a state certificate of satisfactory completion of the Boating Safety Course in order to be at the helm of a boat, power or sail. The Auxiliary had a major part in making this challenge a reality. We taught the classes for power and sail throughout the winter and the Maryland State Boating Course at the Parks and Recreation Center during the summer. Our classrooms were log huts or vacant classrooms wherever available, and our students were young and old. It was a joyous time for all of us.
One August night, in a basement room at the high school, the Southern Maryland classroom was muggy, and since school was not officially “in session,” no air conditioning stirred to relieve the oppressive humidity. Concurrent thoughts raced through my mind, as we ended another session on Safe Boating Basics for the State of Maryland: “I’ve taught this same material three dozen times already [although not to this particular group]; they’re half asleep–eyes glazed over–and the final topic for the course was “Capsizing in frigid water.” “Who in their right mind would even be out on the water in freezing temperatures!”
“OK, Class, I think this may be a wrap, but I do need to make one final—crucial—comment: Cold water kills——-quickly! It’s called HYPOTHERMIA. Notice the illustrations at the bottom of this last page and the Hypothermia Chart. If the water temperature is 50 to 60 degrees, exhaustion or unconsciousness can occur within a 1-2 hour period. I can’t conceive of any of you finding yourselves in this situation, BUT———-if you are, check your flotation device; stay with the boat; do not attempt to swim ashore [It is farther than it appears to be!] and the effort much more difficult than it would be in warmer water. You can preserve body heat by clinging to each other. Share a GROUP HUG and stay as still as you can, until help arrives!!!”
The entire class passed the final exam the following week, which was always a joy for us U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Boating Instructors! But especially so for two of the “graduates”—with their brand new certificates that authorized them to “operate a vessel on Maryland State waters— ” as they put their knowledge to the ultimate test later that fall, AND SURVIVED!
In early December, a father and his 12-year-old son from that August session, boarded the El Toro, a substantial-looking wooden hulled charter boat out of the Potomac River, with nearly twenty eager customers looking for a little excitement and some end-of-the-season fishing. Counting the skipper and crew, there were 23 aboard.
Some of the roughest turbulence on the Chesapeake Bay exists almost constantly where the Potomac meets the bay, and is made even more treacherous on an inbound tide and contrary winds. The charter boat pounded its way through heavy seas as it rounded Point Lookout and headed south.
Suddenly, in spite of the fact that the boat had recently passed its State Safety Inspection, she began taking on water. Two boards had parted and been lifted from the keel. The captain sent an immediate S.O.S., which was received at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, less than ten air miles from the scene. Rescue helicopters were dispatched and quickly began the process of plucking the survivors from the frigid water and transporting them to the Base Hospital.
Two of the group died from exposure, but, although the twelve-year-old and his father were the last to be rescued, they were on full alert as they met “the Press” when the chopper landed (and the usual in-depth questioning session followed): “You were in the water longer than any of the other victims. How do you account for your remarkable survival in near freezing temperatures?”
“We took the Safe Boating Class this summer, and our instructor, Ms. Hayes, told us what to do in a case like this—a ‘group hug’—and I reminded my dad that we had to hug to hold in our body heat. That’s what we did!”
The following August, my fellow Auxiliarists and I were on the dock in Annapolis to receive the honor as Runner-up in the Annual Governor’s Award for Volunteerism. No cold chills that day, but there were plenty the previous December, when I realized how fortunate it was that I had opted to hold the class a few minutes longer and stress the technique for surviving hypothermia—–even as I thought, “This will never happen!” Sometimes I feel that heroism is simply a matter of putting one foot in front of the other and doing what you were trained to do.”