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Mayday on the Illusion!

Editor’s note: This excerpt is from Michael Tougias’ newly released “A Storm Too Soon,” which tells the story of four boats in mayday situations off the Carolinas on May 7, 2007, during powerful Tropical Storm Andrea. Nine of the 13 sailors on the boats survived. This is the story of the three who were rescued aboard Illusion.

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The 67-foot aluminum-hulled Illusion had left Grand Bahama Island on May 3, bound for Newport, R.I. Capt. Chris Leitch and crewmembers James Coates and Jessica Youngblood were delivering the boat to its owners, who had just purchased the vessel.

The sailors had enjoyed two days of smooth sailing until they ran into building seas southeast of Cape Hatteras. The winds became too much for their sails and they switched to engine power, prepared to ride out what they thought would be a minor storm. It wasn’t long before the engine lost power. Leitch did not want to be caught in the Gulf Stream if the storm continued to strengthen, so he raised a bit of sail and slowly pounded to the east.

The storm, however, was simply too big to outrun. Illusion’s anchor came loose and eventually pierced the hull. She started to take on water, shorting out power to the bilge pump. To make matters worse, there was no life raft on board, leaving the captain no choice but to send out a mayday.

* * *

The Jayhawk HH60 helicopter heading to the Illusion is commanded by Scott Walden, accompanied by co-pilot Bill Coty, flight mechanic Justin Cimbak and rescue swimmer Steve Fischer. Walden decides to fly at a low altitude for better visibility and less turbulence. Coty is in the right seat, Walden in the left.

They speed in and out of bands of pouring rain and sustained winds of 60 knots, but what catches the attention of the crew is the state of the ocean below. The ocean resembles mountain ranges with snow-capped peaks and deep valleys. Coty wonders if the seas will be too much for the rescue swimmer and hoist operator to effectively extract the survivors. Fischer has similar thoughts: Looks like a washing machine — this will be my toughest rescue yet. He has butterflies in his stomach and gets himself in the right frame of mind by saying to himself, This is real. You’ve got to do this perfectly.

Andrea, which never made lanfall, was the first cyclone to form in May in 26 years, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Fischer has been a rescue swimmer for three years and has done what he thinks of as small search-and-rescue cases, such as medevacs and hoisting people who became stranded on sandbars. Each had its dangers but nothing like what he’s going to face here. He knows that once he unhooks from the cable in the chaos below he is on his own and the lives of the three people on the sailboat will be squarely on his shoulders. He glances at the charging waves and thinks, Thank God it’s daylight. There’s no way we could do this at night.

To save time when they arrive, Walden asks the on-scene C-130 to radio the Illusion’s captain and review the steps the rescue swimmer will be taking to get them off the boat and safely in the helicopter. The C-130 reports back to the commander with good and bad news: On-scene conditions are the worst he has ever seen, but the captain is knowledgeable and all three crewmembers are in survival suits.

* * *

When they arrive, Illusion looks like a toy, rolling and lurching from side to side, its mast sometimes so far over it looks as if it will touch the ocean. Walden establishes contact with Leitch, and the commander stresses that when the rescue swimmer instructs the first survivor to jump, the other two crewmembers must stay on the boat. Multiple people in the water means multiple headaches, and Walden is aware of too many cases in which survivors have gotten separated. In these seas that means death. He also knows that once a person is in the water, getting back on the boat is not an option — the boat’s freeboard makes it a big target for the wind and pushes it faster than a person can swim.

The three people aboard Illusion were rescued, and the aluminum-hulled 67-footer washed ashore at Fort Fisher, N.C.

Fischer listens in on the conversation, then removes his headset and puts on his neon-yellow helmet, mask and flippers. Cimbak, the flight mechanic, is crouched by the door, and the swimmer slides over and gets hooked up. The two men have formulated a plan in which they will lower Fischer on the hook, but he will also have the strop for the first survivor. They want to do a direct deployment whereby Fisher has the survivor jump when he reaches the water. Fischer hopes to be able to stay on the hook while putting the survivor in the strop and then be hoisted together.

Cimbak lowers Fischer, and the swimmer’s first surprise happens just a few feet from the water. He gets zapped by static electricity. He lets out a yell and is stunned for a couple of seconds. The steel hook is like a magnet for the electricity, and it could have been far worse. A rescue swimmer being lowered to an oil tanker once got an electrical shock so strong a filling came out of one of his teeth.

Fischer’s second surprise occurs when he enters the water and motions for the first survivor, Jessica Youngblood, to jump. As soon as she’s in the ocean, the waves catch her and carry her away so fast that she’s beyond the rescue swimmer’s grasp. Now Fischer is zapped in a different way: Adrenaline shoots through his body, and his heart races. If he loses sight of her in the foam, it’s going to be difficult to find her again. He immediately unclips from the hook and is off to the races, kicking and stroking harder than he’s ever done. He is at her side in seconds.

Cimbak realizes the strop at the end of the hook is blowing far abaft the helo and decides the basket will work better. He retrieves the hook and strop, then attaches the basket and lowers it to the swimmer. Once the survivor is in the basket, he brings her up without incident. Fischer waits in the big, confused seas until the survivor is safely aboard and the basket is re-lowered for him.

When Fischer is lifted back to the helo, he pukes out the seawater he has swallowed; then he and Cimbak decide to use the strop again so the swimmer isn’t pummeled by the waves for long. But when he is lowered he again can’t get close enough to the survivor who jumps. Fischer releases from the hook and fights his way to the sailor; then they wait for the basket and repeat the same steps as the first rescue.

This image of a life raft from the sailboat Lou Pantai shows what rescuers were up against.

It isn’t until the third and final rescue that Fischer is able to snatch the survivor the minute he jumps. Fischer puts the strop around him and they go up together, which is a big relief for the swimmer, who avoids the pummeling while waiting in the water.

* * *

With everyone safely in the aircraft, the survivors are high-fiving and thanking the Coast Guardsmen for saving their lives as the helo heads for land. The flight will take almost twice as long as the trip out because they are buffeted by headwinds, but the aircraft crew is feeling good about what they have accomplished. Then Coty smells smoke.

“Do you smell that?” he asks Walden.

“Sure do. Let’s go through the checklist.”

While they begin to go through the troubleshooting checklist, Coty’s first thought is of the C-130, and he’s glad it is escorting them. If they have to ditch and if they survive — a big if — at least the C-130 will be on scene and can drop life rafts and remain circling until another helicopter arrives.

Flyinc Colours, a 54-foot Little Harbor, was lost in the storm, along with the four people who were on board.

Putting the aircraft down in the water would be a last resort — and only if the helo catches fire or the smoke in the cockpit becomes so thick they can’t fly. Should it come to ditching, however, the first thing the pilots would do is get the helicopter near the water’s surface and in a hover so that the survivors could be lowered by the hook or jump out. The rescue swimmer and flight mechanic would go next and, finally, the co-pilot. The pilot would then move the aircraft away from those in the water before putting it down. His survival would be questionable, depending on the force of the impact and whether he could exit safely when the rotors flip it upside down.

The two pilots are going through the checklist and everything is looking good. They are perplexed but also relieved that no major malfunction is occurring and that the smoke is not getting worse. Then Coty remembers that this helo had a smoke problem several weeks earlier that was attributed to a faulty heater. He shuts the heater off, and the incoming smoke slowly diminishes before completely stopping.

Not wanting to take any chances, Walden decides they are going to land at the closest airfield, which is in Morehead City, N.C. When they arrive, all are relieved, especially the sailors. Jessica Youngblood shakes Fischer’s hand and says, “Thank you — and my mother thanks you!”

Michael Tougias is the author of several books featuring true survival stories, including “Fatal Forecast, Overboard!” and “Ten Hours Until Dawn.” To learn more visit

April 2013 issue