A woman died and a Coast Guard 47-foot Motor Lifeboat was knocked down trying to save her as a storm kicked up 15-foot seas and 50-knot winds off California earlier this year.
Audrey Richards, 42, of Ventura, Calif., died after she fell into the surf from a 34-foot sailboat. Her companion, 40-year-old Donald Upton, was rescued from the water with assistance from the North Coast Ocean Rescue team of the Morro Bay Fire Department. The Coast Guard is investigating the incident.
According to the Coast Guard, the sailors placed a 911 call from their cell phone to the California Highway Patrol at 7:20 a.m. Jan. 7. They said their rigging was fouled, the engine had malfunctioned, and their boat was being battered in the rough conditions. Though the storm had been well-publicized, authorities say the couple, sailing north from Ventura, probably thought they could outrun it.
The mayday was relayed to the Coast Guard in Morro Bay, which dispatched the self-righting MLB, according to Coast Guard spokesman Tony Migliorini. Migliorini says the sailors didn’t have operable radio equipment and couldn’t give rescuers a specific location. Visibility was limited in heavy rain. Around 9:30 a.m. the Coast Guard found the sailors a few hundred yards from shore near San Simeon Beach in Cambria, an area known for its rocky shoreline that attracts elephant seals. The sailboat was pitching and rolling and drifting toward nearby rocks.
“The ocean was just ferocious,” says Richard Stacy, a member of the North County Ocean Rescue team who responded. “Visibility was really poor.”
With the severe conditions, rescuers ruled out trying to board the boat and instead urged the couple to jump into the water, Migliorini says. “Before they could jump, a huge wave hit the sailboat, and the people got tossed off,” he says.
Meanwhile, the MLB with its four-person crew was having troubles of its own. One of its twin 450-hp diesels died. Then a wave knocked the vessel down 90 degrees, Migliorini says. It took about 20 seconds for it to right itself.
“When we came back up, everyone was there,” crewmember Erin Flanery told the San Luis Obispo Observer. “It seemed like forever.”
But the rescuers’ troubles weren’t over. Another wave slammed the MLB against the rocks, Migliorini says. He says the crew tossed life rings to the sailors as they struggled to stabilize their own vessel. With only one engine and a damaged hull, the crew abandoned its rescue attempt and backed away from the surf line. A second 47-footer was called.
As the situation on the water developed, other rescuers from the Coast Guard, Department of Forestry and the North County Ocean Rescue squad mobilized on shore. “This was the most dramatic multiagency rescue,” says Stacy, who has been with the rescue team for about eight years. Stacy says rescuers surveyed the situation — which included avoiding the seals that gathered on the narrow beach — and decided on a plan of action.
Coast Guard Petty Officer Marques Johnson from Station Morro Bay had swum out to the sailors, who repeatedly disappeared in the surf. Johnson, who was tethered to shore with a safety line tended by Petty Officer Jim Pond, recovered Richards and carried her to the beach. She apparently wasn’t wearing a life jacket.
As paramedics tried to revive Richards, Stacy and fellow North County Ocean Rescue member Tom Benton, tethered together with a safety line, fought their way through the surf to help Upton. Stacy could see that Upton — wearing a life jacket and clinging to a life ring — was struggling in the waves. Then, Stacy says, he lost the life ring. “This is all happening very fast,” he recalls.
Johnson swam out to help the rescuers, and the three formed a human chain to reach Upton, pulling him back to the beach. Stacy says Upton asked about his girlfriend. “I didn’t know his girlfriend was dead,” he says. “I was feeling really good about this rescue until I found out.”
Upton was taken to a local hospital where he was treated for mild hypothermia. The boat broke up on the rocks and was later hauled. The damaged Coast Guard MLB was towed to Los Angeles, where its engine was replaced and the hull was repaired.