|CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Last year, over 70,000 recreational boaters called BoatUS Towing Services for routine on the water assistance. Engine breakdowns, running out of gas or running aground were typical requests. However, the captains across the nation who helm the 600 red towboats of the TowBoatUS and Vessel Assist fleets are sometimes put in the center of life-threatening emergencies. The on the water boat towing service recently honored four of its towing captains for their life-saving efforts at a ceremony capping off the annual BoatUS Towing Services conference held in Clearwater Beach, FL.
The captains were honored with "Woody Pollack" awards, named after a well-respected towboat captain in the fleet who died at an early age. "Our guys are not in the rescue business, but their actions save others," said BoatUS Vice President and Director of Towing Services Adam Wheeler. "We are very proud of them." Here are the details on the incidents:
Captain George Farrell and Captain Daniel Higgins of TowBoatUS Yonkers, New York
It was a cold Sunday evening in January. Watching his single engine plane quickly fill up with icy water and unsure if he would survive, student pilot Christopher Smidt made two phone calls. The second was to 911. The first was to his wife, Karen.
"We crashed in the Hudson River and the plane is taking on water," Smidt was quoted in a Yonkers Daily Voice. "Tell the kids I love them. I have to go." After an engine failure and successful water landing, Smidt's plane sat on the Hudson River, just 200 yards off shore of Yonkers, New York, and he instantly knew that any plans of swimming to safety would be impossible. At about the same time a 911 dispatcher was talking Smidt and his flight instructor into walking out on the wing of their sinking plane, a few miles away Captain George Farrell of TowBoatUS Yonkers got a phone call asking if his towboat was in the water and available to respond.
Farrell, a retired Yonkers Police detective told authorities that due to recent ice conditions it was hauled, and instead offered up a steel-hulled Hudson River Pilot Boat. Farrell was soon joined by TowBoatUS Captain and Yonkers Police Officer Danny Higgins, and his son, Danny Jr. Along with some additional off-duty officers, the small group raced to the marina to depart.
As the lines were lifted on the Pilot Boat and it headed out into the dark night with 32-degree water temperatures, Captain Farrell supervised deck and lookout positions. With everyone's eyes peeled, the boat's spotlight swept across the dark ice flows, and soon a shout was heard. It was Smidt.
In the swift ebb tide, Capt. Higgins deftly piloted the rescue boat to Smidt, who was safety brought aboard. However, the plane's flight instructor was unresponsive at first, unable to grab the ring buoy when it was tossed to her. Rescuers were finally able to get her safely aboard as well, and both were rushed to the hospital. Smidt and his flight instructor were discharged the following day and fully recovered.
Captain Lee Sykes and Captain Grey Williams of TowBoatUS Beaufort, North Carolina
"I'm 42 years old and that's the most scared I have ever been in my life," said William Blandford in a WCTI News 12 interview.
The Greenville NC resident is describing the morning of a fishing trip last April, when just before 9:00AM while fishing with a co-worker 11-miles off the Beaufort inlet, Blandford's 30-foot, twin outboard sportfish began to take on water. Without being able to pinpoint the leak, the men were soon in waist-deep in Atlantic seawater. "Out there by yourself, with a boat full of water, you really don't think you are going to make it back," said Blandford.
TowBoatUS Beaufort Dispatch center overheard Blandford's VHF radio distress call and Captain Lee Sykes and Captain Grey Williams of TowBoatUS Beaufort immediately responded. Both TowBoatUS Beaufort and a 47-foot USCG motor lifeboat arrived at the stricken vessel just before 11:00AM.
Pumps were brought aboard. But it was too late. Filled with thousands of pounds of cold seawater, the sportfish rolled. Complicating matters was US Coast Guard rescuer who was swept overboard by a large wave. The young Coast Guardsman's foot became entangled on dock lines, dragging him under with the sinking boat.
Captains Grey and Sykes rushed to help in the five-foot seas. In the rough water, Grey was able to cut the young man free - eventually cutting off his boot - to safely separate him from the tangle of dock line, while Sykes helped stabilize the wreckage and free the Coast Guard vessel. The Coast Guard took Blandford and his co-worker safely back to port.