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Call saves the day for parents overboard

Daughter, 16, radios for help after mom, dad fall off vessel and boat drifts in opposite direction

Daughter, 16, radios for help after mom, dad fall off vessel and boat drifts in opposite direction

The kids were in the boat. The parents were in the water. The wind was blowing 25 knots in one direction. The tide was running in the opposite direction.

In little time, the kids, who did not know how to operate the 23-foot Grady-White powerboat, lost sight of their parents’ heads in the choppy waters of Little Egg Harbor, south of Barnegat Bay, N.J.

The story, which unfolded around 2 p.m. July 3, has a happy ending, thanks to two competing towboat companies who arrived on the scene before the Coast Guard.

But first, why were both parents in the water?

The Coast Guard doesn’t know, and the parents, Phillip Skrzat, 45, and Stacy Skrzat, 42, both of Telford, Pa., did not return a phone call left at their home. But two tow boat operators say they were “told” that Phillip Skrzat, wearing a life jacket, was tubing behind the boat, fell off, and was floundering. Then his wife donned a life jacket and jumped in to help him.

At that point, the current pulled the parents in one direction, while the wind blew the boat with their four children in the opposite direction.

The Coast Guard says Cary Skrzat, 16, the oldest child aboard the boat, picked up the VHF radio microphone and began calling for help, saying her parents had fallen overboard. She did not know where she was, the Coast Guard says.

At the same time that the Coast Guard heard Cary’s call, Rick Ellenberg, an operator for TowBoatU.S., was on his vessel in Beach Haven, a barrier island, with his radio on; and Capt. John McLaughlin, owner of Sea Tow in Tuckerton, N.J., dispatching boats from the mainland side of the bay, heard as well.

The girl “just started screaming that somebody fell overboard,” McLaughlin says. “It got a little confusing because once the Coast Guard heard that somebody fell overboard, they jumped right in.”

McLaughlin says his goal was to calm Cary down, and that the Coast Guard radio operators held off their questioning to allow him to proceed.

“She did a good job for what was going on,” McLaughlin says. “We just kept asking questions.” He says they asked what marina her boat had departed. When she said Cedar Grove, “that told us she came out of Tuckerton Creek. From there, she wasn’t sure where they went.”

So McLaughlin asked Cary what she could see. She reported seeing sailboats and a round ball with an “x” on it. McLaughlin knew the location of that buoy, a marker for local sailboat races.

“We were telling her to keep her eyes on her parents,” says McLaughlin.

Ellenberg, of TowBoatU.S., was three miles away when the call came in. He heard Cary say she saw sails. There were two sails on the far side of the bay, one closer to the Sea Tow boat. So Ellenberg headed for the other sail and found the Grady-White.

Circling the area, Ellenberg and the Sea Tow boat found the Skrzats, who were too exhausted to climb aboard after being dunked by the choppy whitecaps of the bay for several minutes. They were pulled aboard the low transom of the Sea Tow boat and taken ashore to be reunited with their children.

Cary “did a good job on the radio,” says McLaughlin. “It’s something that maybe parents should teach their kids: how to use the VHF radio and if something goes wrong, how to react.”