The Anatomy Of A Rescue At Sea – How Quick Action And Common Sense Saved A Life

Nancy B. Alston

It was a beautiful summer day on Fire Island. There was a light breeze out of the south, typical at that time of year. Residents of bayfront homes were enjoying the day on their front decks overlooking the bay. One or two of them had their small boats tied at the bulkhead. From time to time a sailboat or power boat or passenger ferry would pass by, a thousand feet or so away, out in the main channel.

A small sailboat came into view. There appeared to be two people aboard, moving about, seeming to exert a great deal of effort without much evident result. People on shore commented that one of two things was probably happening – either there was trouble of some kind with the boat, or the sailors were inexperienced in the handling of sailboats.

In a flash, one of the two people fell overboard. There was a great deal of thrashing about in the water. The sailboat continued on, its remaining occupant running back and forth in the boat. There were no other boats in the vicinity.

On shore, a homeowner and his son looked at each other and, with one voice, said “Let’s go!” They ran to the son’s small power boat at the bulkhead and raced to the scene. The victim, who was not wearing a life jacket, was thrashing about wildly in a state of panic. She was extremely heavy. Father and son realized that there was no way to bring her aboard the boat; the only recourse was to tow her to shore. The father placed her hands on the gunwale and held them there tightly while the son operated the boat slowly toward the shore. Both of them tried as best they could to calm her down, assuring her that she was safe now and would soon be on shore.

The tide was running out, so the point of arrival of the boat back to shore would not be the same as the point of departure. The boat made its way back to the bulkhead, where father and son told the woman to “put your feet down, you can stand up!” – which was so, for the water was only about three feet deep there.

Now she was safe, but the problem remained – how to get her up and over the top of the bulkhead? The father heard a sound that he recognized – the sound of a Cushman motor scooter, which meant “Police.” Perfect! Father ran to the young policeman, quickly outlined the facts, and said “What we need to do is rig up a ladder to get her up and over the top of the bulkhead.” The policeman ran to the bulkhead, sized up the situation very quickly, and had the commendable presence of mind to ask whether everyone was all right – he asked not only the victim, but the father and son as well. He sped to the local small food market not too far away and commandeered a dolly, which was brought back to the scene immediately. The policeman placed the dolly in the water. It served very well as a ladder. Up and over came the victim, still distraught, but safe. She was too upset to say “thanks” to anyone; but the father took note of the policeman’s shield number and sent a note of commendation later to the Chief of Police.

The father and the son remember that day vividly, though it happened decades ago. I was there. I know both of them well.

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