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24 hours afloat with no life jacket

Novice sailors find the seaman and execute their newly learned crew-overboard drill

A Polish mariner who fell unnoticed from a container ship in the Bahamas was forced to tread water for nearly 24 hours before being rescued by a group of novice high school sailors.

The Polish ship, Pilica, was motoring east past the Abacos around 6 p.m. Jan. 29 when the crew realized 49-year-old Suchy Ryszard hadn’t been seen since noon and was no longer on board, according to the Coast Guard. The rescue agency launched an HC-130 from Air Station Clearwater to search near Pilica’s position at the time Ryszard was last seen. The aircraft crew spotted Ryszard, who was not wearing a personal flotation device, around 9:25 a.m. the following morning some 65 miles north of the Bahamas. Water temperature reportedly was about 74 degrees.

The Coast Guard requested assistance from Geronimo, a 69-foot cutter-rigged sloop from St. George’s School in Newport, R.I., which was in the vicinity. Geronimo, the school’s educational vessel that sails to Florida and the Bahamas for the winter, had departed West Palm Beach, Fla., Jan. 29 for a six-week program in the Bahamas. Skippered by Capt. Deborah Hayes, Geronimo was crewed by seven students, who had received only a day or so of sail-training, including a briefing on crew-overboard recovery.

Reached by cell phone in the Bahamas, Hayes said she and the students already were on the lookout for the missing mariner. They had heard the pan-pan message about Ryszard, and the Coast Guard had been flying over the area for several hours.

Although conditions were mild, with winds 10 to 15 knots and minimal seas, Hayes said she feared the worst. Ryszard had been missing for nearly 24 hours, and the area was heavily trafficked by commercial ships, which Hayes said could have struck him without noticing. Her husband, first mate John Beebe-Center, spotted Ryszard about a quarter-mile from Geronimo. Despite the crew’s lack of experience, the skipper reported a flawless rescue.

“Geronimo went right into the man-overboard drill the crew had learned just days before,” said Hayes. “They struck their jib, turned on the engine, loosened the main, and approached the man in the water. They threw him the life ring and then hauled him from the water with the use of the boat’s sling.”

Hayes’ husband and one other student pulled Ryszard aboard. The man was wearing only a wedding ring. Hayes said he must have taken his clothing off to help stay afloat. Despite his ordeal, the Polish-speaking mariner was in surprisingly good condition, said Hayes.

“He was a little tired, a little thirsty,” she said. But Ryszard was able to walk on his own, his skin tone was good, and his pulse was only slightly elevated, according to Hayes.

“He had to have enormous fortitude,” said Hayes. “It’s a credit to his mental state.”

The Coast Guard asked Geronimo to transport him to Great Harbour Cay in the Berry Islands, but the tide was dead low and the harbor wasn’t deep enough for Geronimo. A couple who had been in the area aboard a small powerboat named Sand Fleet rendezvoused with the sloop and transported Ryszard to shore, where an emergency medical team took him to the island hospital. He was found to be in good condition, according the Coast Guard.

The crew of the container ship Pilica contacted Geronimo and thanked them for rescuing their fellow crewmember. The Coast Guard praised the good Samaritans.