Honored for rescue in 25-foot seas

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Coast Guard swimmer Joshua Mitcheltree earned the Association for Rescue at Sea’s Gold Medal

Coast Guard swimmer Joshua Mitcheltree earned the Association for Rescue at Sea’s Gold Medal

Jim Grundy had never seen a storm quite like the one he faced in April 2006. Little did he know that a year later his rescuer, Coast Guard Aviation Survival Technician Joshua Mitcheltree, would be earning an award for his heroic efforts.

This year the Association for Rescue at Sea presented its Gold Medal to Mitcheltree, 24, along with Boatswain’s Mate First Class David Ramsey, 28, for his role in rescuing a 50-foot fishing boat from the Columbia River Bar. The awards were given at an Oct. 2 ceremony in Washington, D.C.

Grundy and his girlfriend, Valerie Walters, 41, left the Bahamas April 25 and were making their way up the East Coast to Chesapeake Bay aboard Arrluuk, Grundy’s 60-foot wooden Herreshoff cat-ketch replica, when the sky went black. “We were heading into the Gulf Stream and we could see CapeHatteras,” says Grundy, 53, owner of an insurance company based in Horsham, Pa. “But the weather got pretty dramatic.”

Grundy, who says he has been sailing since he was 10, assured Walters that as long as the weather cleared, they would be fine. It didn’t.

“We had a clear weather forecast two days after we left the Bahamas, and then we couldn’t get a forecast [due to radio trouble], and then we got struck by lightning and couldn’t get anything,” says Grundy. “It was miserable.” They wound up battling a northeast gale as seas grew to more than 20 feet and winds topped out at 55 knots. The lightning fried their electronics and autopilot.

After 2-1/2 days in those conditions, Grundy radioed the Coast Guard to discuss their situation and the deteriorating weather, but not to ask for help. “We identified the vessel, gave our location, and requested local weather information,” says Grundy. “I’ve been in plenty of big waves before, but these were piled on top of each other. You couldn’t get over one without smashing into another one.”

After several attempts to radio the Coast Guard, which Grundy thought were unsuccessful, he went back to steering Arrluuk. “I had to get back up there anyway, and the cockpit was full of water half of the time,” says Grundy. “Then a little later I see this big helicopter hovering over us.”

Grundy was surprised by the Coast Guard’s presence — he says he didn’t issue a mayday — but the rescuers told him they were responding to his calls. Aboard the helicopter, Mitcheltree was thinking what a long day it had been. He already had assisted in rescuing three people from the water and giving one man CPR. But his long day was about to get longer.

“We couldn’t just hoist them up, because the 75-foot mast was swinging around too much,” says Mitcheltree. “We told him over the radio the weather was only going to get worse from here.”

Grundy says he didn’t want to abandon his boat, but he realized he had no choice. “I’ve been through a lot, but I’ve never had to abandon a boat before,” he says. “But it was just the two of us, and if Valerie got hurt I would never forgive myself. So they told us to put on our PFDs and jump into [our] life raft.”

As darkness fell, Mitcheltree was lowered into the 25-foot seas, unhooked his harness and swam toward the life raft. “There was no light and it was a little freaky,” he says. “This was the first time I did a rescue in big seas at night, even though I’ve done plenty of rescues.”

Mitcheltree says he had to swim up and down and over waves, trying not to lose sight of the life raft, and Grundy recalls watching him approach, seemingly fearless. “It was like he had a motor in his legs,” says Grundy. “He got into our life raft, and Valerie said, ‘Well, it’s nice of you to stop by.’ ”

Mitcheltree says the interaction in the life raft was a moment of surreal comedy in the midst of a crazy situation. “I remember Valerie looking at me terrified, and then I spit out my snorkel and said, ‘Hi, I’m Josh,’ ” says Mitcheltree. “We all introduced ourselves, and it was like we were in a restaurant, rather than a raft in the middle of the waves.”

While Grundy remembers the entire rescue taking about 10 minutes from raft to helicopter, it seemed far longer to Mitcheltree, who had to swim Grundy and Walters one at a time to an area where they could be safely hoisted. “Valerie tells me that she can’t really swim, but I tell her I’m going to hold on to her,” says Mitcheltree. “The current was very strong, but I got her in the basket. But these are big seas, and I can’t see what’s coming. And then the waves jerked her right out of my hands and out of the basket.”

Mitcheltree managed to get her back into the basket as a wave lifted her, and the crew hoisted her to the helicopter. He had similar difficulty with Grundy, but Mitcheltree grabbed hold of him to keep him in the basket as it was being hoisted.

“I was jerked out of the water in the middle of the darkness and I couldn’t hang on,” says Mitcheltree. “So I was just falling, falling, falling and then smacked into the water.” He says he swam back to sink the raft so other boats wouldn’t think there were people inside. “I stuck my knife into it,” he says, before he was hoisted back up to the chopper.

Arrluuk drifted south of CapeHatteras and was eventually spotted off Beaufort, N.C., where she was towed ashore.

Grundy says his 60-year-old sailboat suffered plenty of damage, but she’s been repaired and is sailing again. Grundy is happy that Mitcheltree has received the AFRAS Gold Medal. “He was a wonderful guy and he did a magnificent job,” he says. “He is not only a well-trained physical athlete, but he handled the whole event on the most professional level of mature sophistication.”

Boatswain’s Mate First Class Ramsey earned his Gold Medal in what he calls “the worst experience with the Coast Guard I have ever had.”

In January 2006 Ramsey towed a 50-foot fishing boat from the Columbia River Bar off Oregon in breaking surf conditions, although he wasn’t qualified at that point for surf rescue. “I had a lot of confidence in myself, and definitely my training paid off in this situation,” says Ramsey

Ramsey steered the 47-foot Motor Lifeboat through 25- to 35-foot seas with 25-foot breaking waves to reach the fishing vessel. “It was almost flooded, and we had to secure the tow line,” says Ramsey.

Ramsey, who has been in the Coast Guard since 1998, says the ordeal was nerve-wracking. “I was hoping and praying that everything would go right with the crew,” he says, “because you only get one shot when you are as close to the rocks as we were.”

He says he remembers waves rising high above him on both sides as he towed the fishing vessel. “You’re in a [47-footer] pulling a 50-footer in the middle of waves like those,” he says. “Afterward, I got certified as an official Surfman, but it was the hardest way to earn my pin.”

The silver award will be presented to Auxiliarist Harold Robinson, who in August 2006 rescued a father, son and three small children from a 19-foot powered canoe that swamped and was capsized by rough seas crossing the Delaware River.

AFRAS is a non-profit organization that supports voluntary lifesaving services around the world. The Gold Medal has been awarded annually since 1982 and is presented to an enlisted person for “extraordinary bravery during a rescue at sea.” www.afras.org