Charter boat answers rescue call

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Good Samaritans turn back to sea to rescue two men from a sunken scallop boat

Good Samaritans turn back to sea to rescue two men from a sunken scallop boat

The sunrise was sparkling and the day beautiful, if chilly, with the Atlantic mirror-smooth. By 1 p.m. the sea had turned nasty, and the charter fishing boat Captain Collet, with 10 passengers and a crew of two, was steaming back toward Atlantic City, N.J., when the radio crackled.

“Pan-pan, pan-pan, pan-pan,” came the message at 2:17 p.m. Jan. 19.

Cindy Meloy, a 38-year-old licensed master, was at the helm of the 64-footer. Her husband, 41-year-old Edward Collet, also a master, was on deck talking about the day’s catch of cod, ling and blackfish. And about 18 miles to the north, the 45-foot Chico Bravo, a commercial day scallop boat, had sunk. Now over the VHF the Coast Guard was reporting that Chico Bravo’s EPIRB had been activated. The agency asked all vessels in the area to keep a lookout and, if able, to assist.

Chico Bravo’s dock was just across Delta Basin from the Captain Collet, so Meloy knew there was a life raft mounted forward of Chico Bravo’s wheelhouse. She also knew the best-case scenario: that the captain and first mate were in the raft, getting the ride of their lives in seas that had grown to 6 to 8 feet. There were other, more dire scenarios that she could imagine as she stepped to the wheelhouse door and summoned Collet.

There was no question in Collet’s mind what he should do, and he turned to his customers to explain. He knew these scallopers and had talked with the skipper, John Phillips III, the night before. Collet told them that Phillips, who is 36, and his mate, 21-year-old Ian Iysenbach, likely were in the water. If they weren’t in survival suits, they already would be experiencing the first symptoms of hypothermia. There were minutes, not hours, left to save the men. And if Collet and Meloy turned back to sea, their passengers faced a long, rough ride home. So he gave them an out: Did anyone have a problem with attempting a rescue?

All said they were ready for the challenge, though Meloy already had spun the wheel, aiming Captain Collet toward the EPIRB’s coordinates. Now the boat was running with the 20-knot winds in what had become a blizzard, snow blowing horizontally over the ocean in nearly zero visibility. The seas built into sharp wind waves, with foam trailing in long, lacy streaks. But going with the wind, the boat rode comfortably.

Now the passengers began organizing themselves and planning how they would help. One came to the wheelhouse to serve as a lookout. Collet called the Coast Guard, explaining that he knew Chico Bravo, that it had a crew of two, that they weren’t at the dock when he’d left that morning, and that the area from which the EPIRB sent its signal was a place where that boat dredged for scallops.

By this time the Coast Guard had dispatched a rescue helicopter from Air Station Atlantic City, a 47-foot rescue boat from Station Atlantic City, and the cutter Ibis from Cape May, N.J.

Over the next 45 minutes Meloy and Collet explained that in these conditions it would be necessary to focus on one spot in the distance, rather than scanning across the sea. They should look for any type of floating debris that might indicate a wreck, including an oil slick.

The Captain Collet was about two miles from the EPIRB coordinates when Meloy saw a flash of orange off to port. When she called out, everyone on the boat looked, but they saw nothing. Collet, now at the helm, turned the wheel to steam in the direction his wife was pointing, and in a little more than a minute the orange speck appeared again, perched atop a wave before disappearing in a trough. The life raft was about 200 feet ahead of them.

Collet blew an air horn in case there were survivors who didn’t know he was there. When a red flare shot out from the raft, Collet radioed the Coast Guard on channel 16 that there was a raft and at least one survivor.

As Collet edged the boat closer to the raft, Meloy left the wheelhouse and went out on deck. As they neared the raft, she called out, asking how many people were in the raft and their condition.

“Two,” came the reply. But they were too weak from hypothermia to climb out of the raft. When the boat reached the raft, Meloy could see that it was Iysenbach who was talking. Phillips, lying on the raft floor, was too weak to raise his head. He was still conscious and instructed his mate to close the tent zipper when he wasn’t talking.

Collet says Phillips later explained that the Chico Bravo had felt suddenly sluggish, and when he turned around he saw that the entire after deck with the dredging equipment was under water. Phillips told Iysenbach to prepare the life raft, mounted forward of the wheelhouse, and the mate left through the aft cabin door. By the time Phillips reached for the VHF microphone to radio a mayday, the cabin was filling with water, and he could no longer get out. Phillips smashed a window and escaped into the 39-

degree water just as his boat went under.

Phillips and Iysenbach, both in sweat clothes, swam to the life raft and crawled inside, closing the orange tent. But now their clothes were soaked with frigid seawater. A sea anchor kept the raft stable in the choppy waves, and they waited, believing that their EPIRB would bring help within 15 minutes.

But when the EPIRB sent its signal at 2 p.m., only the instrument’s identification number, not its location, was received by a passing satellite. The Coast Guard says it knew it was the Chico Bravo but had to wait 15 minutes for another satellite to report where the boat had sunk.

Having maintained contact with the Coast Guard, Collet and Meloy knew a helicopter was on its way and would arrive in five minutes. Rather than attempt to haul the fishermen up to their boat, they chose to wait alongside.

The chopper arrived first, its orange fuselage but a gray shadow in the driving snow. Then, unseen by the Captain Collet’s radar, the cutter Ibis arrived and launched a crew in an inflatable. With precision, the guardsmen hauled the survivors into the inflatable, ran their boat up the cutter’s stern ramp, and discharged Phillips and Iysenbach into the ship’s infirmary. It was 3:30 p.m., and the men had been in the raft 90 minutes. They suffered from hypothermia, but they would survive.

Collet says he had been involved in perhaps 20 rescues in his long career on the water. “In this case, they were in a situation where the probability of anybody seeing them was so low, the conditions they were in were so bad, I would definitely say it was the most dramatic,” he says. “I was personally amazed that they survived.”

The next day one of the Captain Collet’s passengers — a man who fishes two days a week year round — called and told the skipper that if he had a choice to catch a world record fish or to go after Phillips and Iysenbach again, “I’d go after those guys,” Collet recalls him saying. “To him, it’s the greatest feeling he ever had.”

The Coast Guard awarded Meloy and Collet a letter of appreciation for their involvement in the rescue.