Bob Elwell was about to turn in for the night when something on his radio scanner caught his attention.
As the former mayor of Cape May, N.J., and current volunteer firefighter for West Cape May, N.J., Elwell is in the habit of leaving his scanner on, but most of the time it is just background noise. However, shortly before 11 p.m., April 14, Elwell heard a mayday call on VHF channel 16 from a couple who had run aground off Cape May.
"I thought I would hear the Coast Guard answer, but nothing was coming back," says Elwell. "At first I thought it was someone fooling around, but then I heard the call again a few seconds later and I heard a woman's cry in the background."
Elwell says his instinct told him that the voice was no hoax and he proceeded to call the Cape May Coast Guard small-boat station.
Elwell says the coordinates of the boat - Wildcat, a 37-foot Hunter - were not clear, but that didn't stop him from trying to help. Shortly after notifying the Coast Guard, police and fire departments, Elwell got into his pickup truck to search for the vessel himself. He brought along his cell phone and a flashlight.
The Coast Guard does not have a record of Elwell's call, says spokesman and petty officer Chris McLaughlin, but they were already responding. They also heard the distress call on VHF channel 16, received first at the 87-foot coastal patrol boat Tiger Shark at 10:47 p.m. and about 10 seconds later at Coast Guard Station Cape May - about a mile away from the scene, he says. The wind was about 10 knots, seas 2 feet and visibility around 10 nautical miles, according to McLaughlin.
A 47-foot motor lifeboat was launched from station Cape May and arrived on the scene at 11:26 p.m., he says.
Elwell, who only lives about three or four blocks from the shore, arrived on the scene at about 11:15 p.m., he says. He discovered Wildcat beached beyond the seawall between Queen and Jefferson streets and shone his flashlight over the seawall to the man and woman, who saw him. Elwell estimates they were about 100 yards away. It was pitch-dark near the seawall where they were beached, so Elwell figures the sailors had probably gotten disoriented.
The fire department arrived on the scene at 11:27 p.m.
One of the firefighters, wearing a wet suit, got into the water and helped the couple off the boat and onto shore, Elwell says. The water appeared to be about chest-high. Meanwhile, the Coast Guard continued to patrol until the two sailors made it safely to land.
"The Tiger Shark stayed on-scene for patrol, but there was no way a ship like that could get in to help those people," says McLaughlin. "They were beached in very shallow water."
Elwell called his wife and asked her to bring over some warm clothes for the woman from Wildcat who was visibly shaken by the situation. He also contacted a local motel to make accommodations for the couple and made sure there was hot coffee waiting for them when they arrived after being evaluated by medical personnel.
"I don't feel like I did anything special here," says Elwell. "Being a volunteer firefighter, we are used to crazy situations. I just think you should be nice to someone because someday you are going to need someone to be nice to you."
McLaughlin says Sea Tow successfully salvaged the vessel at 8:55 the following morning and towed it to South Jersey Marina in Cape May. At press time, repairs were being done to the shaft and propeller at South Jersey's sister marina, Canyon Club Resort, also in Cape May.
"They are lucky they didn't go into the rock pile or two outfall pipes that were about 25 to 50 yards down from where they were beached," says Elwell. "Fortunately this story had a happy ending."
This article originally appeared in the Mid-Atlantic Home Waters Section of the June 2010 issue.