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'Geezer' crew proves they're up to a rescue

At the ceremony that honored Coast Guard swimmer Randall Rice, AFRAS also awarded a Silver Medal and an AMVER Award. The medal went to a crew of Coast Guard Auxiliarists from North Carolina. The AMVER Award went to a container ship captain and crew who came to the rescue of four sailors off Bermuda.

Five Coast Guard Auxiliarists were given the AFRAS Silver Medal for saving a stricken man aboard a runaway jonboat.

The Silver Medal was awarded to Auxiliarists Bill Gerdsen, 74, Fred Jelinek, 67, Ronald Johnson, 68, Jim Mauk, 81, and Dennis Szeba, 65, of Flotilla 20-10 in Swansboro, N.C. On June 30, 2011, the men were conducting crew-overboard drills aboard Valrose II, the Parker 25 that Johnson owns and the volunteer crew uses for patrols and training. “We had just thrown our ring buoy overboard to begin the drill,” says Jelinek, the flotilla commander. “We turned around and started heading up toward the buoys when we saw a woman [on a small boat] about 75 yards away waving her hands at us.”

As they drew closer they saw a jonboat circling with a man slumped over the tiller. The crew called Coast Guard Station Emerald Isle, which launched a 24-foot rescue boat and contacted Emerald Isle EMS. “When we got there, she said she didn’t know how to stop the boat,” Jelinek says. Johnson, at the helm of Valrose II, pulled alongside and shadowed the jonboat. The others told her to pull the “red cord,” which she did, and the boat slowed enough to board.

“There was a large dog on the boat, too, and the first thing I said when stepping aboard was, ‘I hope this dog’s happy to see me,’ ” Jelinek says. Gerdsen joined him, and they determined the man had no pulse. Jelinek started chest compressions on the man, who appeared to be in his early 50s, and Gerdsen moved the woman and dog to the bow.

Jelinek continued CPR for about four minutes until the Coast Guard arrived and took over. The Coast Guard used a defibrillator on the man and towed the jonboat to shore, where EMTs were waiting. “We later learned that while he was in the ambulance they got a heartbeat from him,” Jelinek says. “He’s one lucky guy.”

The Auxiliarists headed back to the Coast Guard station. “We were thinking, holy smokes, what just happened?”

About 17 minutes elapsed from Valrose II’s first call to the patient’s arrival at a hospital. At the station, the Auxiliarists sat down to discuss what they did right and what they did wrong. “People came by and said, ‘What, are you crazy? You just saved a life,’ ” Jelinek says. “And we said there are thousands of Auxiliary crews that would have done the same thing. We’re typical, not special.”

Jelinek says the “old geezers” are “just tickled” about the award and drove their spouses to Washington for the ceremony. “Looking back, when everything works out and someone would have been dead if we weren’t there … it’s a good feeling.”

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The AMVER plaque was awarded to the captain and crew of the M/V Oleander, a Marshall Islands-flagged container ship managed by Container Ship Management out of Bermuda, for the rescue of four sailors Nov. 6, 2011.

Elle, a 46-foot sailboat, was under way from Newport, R.I., to Bermuda in the North American Rally to the Caribbean when they encountered 30-foot seas and gale force winds. “The winds were 40 to 90 knots, with waves bigger than I’ve ever seen them. They looked like houses,” says Jim Schweitzel, who suffered cracked ribs after being launched across the cabin when the boat was hit by a wave, in the Royal Gazette, a Bermuda newspaper.

The sailboat had lost steering. “We decided to take a rest and hope that the storm would die down, but it was like sitting in a tomb,” Schweitzel told the paper. “Eventually we decided to call for help.”

Rescue authorities in Bermuda received a distress call from Elle. They relayed it to the Coast Guard, which joined the search. The Oleander was bound for Bermuda, and in response to a request for aid through the Automated Mutual Assistance Vessel Rescue System, it diverted to assist the sailboat crew.

“Capt. [Jacek] Jurszo expertly maneuvered the Oleander next to the sailing vessel, avoiding the wildly swinging mast,” AFRAS said in announcing the award. “When one of the sailors lost balance and plunged into the ocean, the crew of Oleander reacted quickly, threw him a line, which he tied to his safety harness, and hauled him back over the side of his boat.” All four sailors were safely transferred to the ship in difficult conditions.

“AFRAS commends the expert actions of the captain and crew of Oleander for their role in this dramatic rescue,” the nonprofit foundation said.

See related article:

- Once again putting his life on the line

December 2012 issue