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Coast Guard rescues same sailor twice in 11 months

Craig Peterson radioed the Coast Guard as 45-knot winds and 35-foot seas battered his 25-foot Catalina about 30 miles off Orick, Calif. The rudder was broken, and the sailboat was taking on water.

Craig Peterson radioed the Coast Guard as 45-knot winds and 35-foot seas battered his 25-foot Catalina about 30 miles off Orick, Calif. The rudder was broken, and the sailboat was taking on water.

In a dramatic nighttime rescue Dec. 2, a four-personCoast Guard helicopter crew based in Humboldt Bay, Calif., plucked Peterson from the Pacific. It was the second time in a year that the 33-year-old sailor from Brookings, Ore., had to be rescued from treacherous waters.

Peterson couldn’t be hoisted directly from his boat because the swells and wind were throwing the vessel around wildly. Instead, a rescue swimmer was lowered with a basket, Peterson was told to jump in the water, and the swimmer grabbed him and helped him into the basket. Peterson was fine, but the swimmer suffered a strained back as he was being lowered into the sea.

“One of the swells basically picked him up and threw him 30 feet,” says Coast Guard Lt. JG Russell Merrick. “That’s when we think he was injured.”

The boat drifted 45 miles north and washed up on a beach in Kellogg, Calif.Merrick says the sailor was cooperative with the rescue team. “He was very thankful,” says Merrick. In fact, he says Peterson visited the station a day later to thank the Coast Guard again.

But Peterson wasn’t as appreciative in a previous encounter with the Coast Guard, in January 2007, when he crossed the ChetcoRiver bar near the Oregon-California border. The bar was closed to recreational vessels due to severe conditions with 25-foot breakers. A 47-foot Motor Lifeboat followed Peterson over the bar. “[Peterson] timed it just right,” says Petty Officer Scott Harrison, who was on the rescue vessel. “He crossed during a lull when there were no breakers. It was blind luck.”

The Coast Guard also crossed during a lull, caught up to Peterson, and pleaded with him to return to port, reminding him that he had broken the law by crossing the bar and ignoring the Coast Guard’s order to stop. “He wouldn’t have any of it,” says Harrison. “He was dead set on sailing his boat to Hawaii.”

Conditions worsened, and the Coast Guard was forced to return to port. The following day seas calmed, and the Coast Guard was able to board Peterson’s boat and tow it back to the Port of Brookings. During the boarding, Peterson verbally resisted the Coast Guard’s efforts but gave the crew no “real trouble,” says Harrison. For his own safety, Peterson was handcuffed, and a life jacket was put on him, according to the Coast Guard. Two Coast Guard officers stayed on the sailboat with him while it was towed. Like the crew that would rescue Peterson 11 months later, Harrison says he and his unit knew the sailor could be difficult to deal with.

Peterson had been at sea for more than a week before he got into trouble the second time. He had cast off in late November, telling his family that he wanted to fish for tuna and then sail to Alaska. Both this and the previous endeavor were unrealistic, given the weather conditions at that time of year, says Jim Day, a commercial crab fisherman who runs a 36-foot, cedar-planked vessel out of Brookings. The prime time to fish for tuna is in late May and into June, he says. “No one fishes for tuna now. December is the worst month for weather.” Sailing a 25-footer to Alaska doesn’t make much sense, either, says Day.

The storm that ended Peterson’s latest voyage was the worst of the year, he says. In fact, it forced him and other commercial fishermen to stay home. “It was pretty severe,” he says. “Guys lost a lot of crab gear.”

The day after the storm, the commercial crabbers combed the beach for washed up gear. That’s when he discovered Peterson’s Catalina. “The hull wasn’t busted up, but the keel was damaged and the glass was coming apart,” he says.

Day doesn’t understand why Peterson was allowed to sail after he had to be rescued the first time. However, the Coast Guard has no authority to take away a person’s right to operate a boat based on state of mind, says Chris Woodley, chief of external affairs for the Coast Guard’s 13th District. He says the agency’s hands were tied because the sailboat wasn’t unsafe to sail. “There was nothing wrong with the boat,” he says.

The Coast Guard estimates that it costs $6,200 an hour to operate an HH-65C Dolphin helicopter, the chopper used in the December rescue. That mission lasted more than two hours.

Peterson couldn’t be reached for comment, and the Coast Guard declined to divulge his contact information due to privacy policies.