Susan Strasser swallowed so much water after a large wave swept her from her family’s center console in Hillsboro Inlet that staff at the hospital that treated her found it hard to believe she survived.
Survive she did, though, and she has Greg Mallek, who captains a Sea Tow response boat in the sometimes tricky Pompano Beach inlet, to thank for her rescue.
Mallek responded with speed and skill to her sudden emergency on a Sunday afternoon last March, and his actions have earned him an international lifesaving award that recognizes extraordinary bravery.
“It’s not something I expected,” he says of the Association for Rescue at Sea (AFRAS) Award. “It makes you stop and count your blessings every day because that situation could have turned out so much worse.”
Small-craft warnings were in place on March 12, 2012, with 15-knot southeasterly winds that by about 6 p.m., with the tide running out, had kicked up a steep 4- to 6-foot chop.
“It was a rough afternoon out there,” says Mallek, 25, whose primary patrol area aboard his 33-foot RIB is the inlet.
Strasser, 40, and her husband, Rick, run an accounting business in Coral Springs and take their 23-foot Dusky out on most weekends, usually with their four children.
“The day of the accident, my husband and I decided to take off the afternoon,” Strasser says. “It was the middle of tax season, so we decided since it was a Sunday we would try to take a break. Our four kids were out of town, so it was the first time we went on the boat without them.”
After a few hours of relaxing and fishing, the couple headed back in, with Susan lying down at the bow.
At the inlet the water seemed rougher than it had been on the way out, so Rick asked his wife to join him on the helm bench seat.
“I stood up, but before I could get to him a wave came out of nowhere, hit from the side and turned the boat completely sideways, filling it with water and ejecting me right out,” Strasser says. “My husband was barely able to hold on to the canopy — he almost went in himself.
“I was struck by the boat while in the water and knocked unconscious for a few seconds,” she says, “Within 20 to 30 seconds, before either of us even knew what had happened, I had been dragged by the current so far that I could barely see the boat amidst the huge waves.”
Terrified, Strasser feared the worst.
“In the next few minutes I had gone into a complete state of panic,” she recalls. “Barely able to stay above water, I was sure I was going to die. All I could think about were my children, leaving them with no mother.”
At the same time during the waning afternoon Mallek was heading in, following an offshore patrol. He saw a center console with two aboard ahead of him “doing everything correctly,” heading down the center of the marked channel, which avoids a reef on the shallow south side of the inlet.
“Then this freak wave just washed over the stern [of the center console], then another,” he says. “The second one, a big whitewater breaker, washed over the stern of the boat and pushed it over the reef.”
As Mallek approached, the skipper began shouting that his wife was in the water without a life jacket.
“I told him to throw his anchor down and I started looking for her,” Mallek says. “I saw an arm flailing in the water out of the corner of my eye, probably 200 yards away, back toward the reef area.”
Strasser says she remembers “seeing the yellow boat coming toward me and thinking I was going under before it would make it to me. Thankfully, it did — barely.”
Mallek inched his boat as close as he safely could — about 15 feet from the woman, who he says was taking a beating on top of the reef. He ran to the bow and tossed a 20-foot line he had near the helm.
“That was a good toss,” he says. “The first shot, she was able to grab hold of the line. It seemed like everything was working in my favor that day.”
With Strasser clinging tightly to the line, he was able to coax her to the stern and pull her aboard.
“When I pulled her out she had lacerations all over her legs and arms and behind her ear,” Mallek recalls. “She was still breathing and still conscious, but in shock and had ingested a large amount of water.”
“I will never forget Greg’s face when he reached down for me,” Strasser says. “He was like an angel to me — still is.”
Mallek had radioed ahead, and an emergency medical team met him and Strasser at the dock.
“Susan later told me the hospital staff couldn’t believe she had survived, given the amount of water they pulled out of her,” he says.
The grateful Strassers have kept in touch with Mallek.
Mallek was honored in January at the annual meeting of the Conference of Professional Operators for Response Towing in Clearwater Beach, Fla. He appreciates the recognition, but he says he acted no differently than anyone else would have.
“It was just instinct that kicked in: Grab them and get them out of the water,” he says. “It wasn’t something I expected to get anything out of — just helping a fellow boater.”
April 2013 issue