Coast Guard rescue swimmer Drew D. Dazzo was pleased to hear he was to receive Canada's Star of Courage.
But the prestige of the award didn't sink in until he discovered he is only the third American so honored.
"I remember thinking, 'Yeah, cool!' when I was notified, but I didn't know how big of a deal it was at first," says Petty Officer 1st Class Dazzo, 37, who lives in Elizabeth City, N.C., and has been a rescue swimmer for 10 years. "But when my executive officer told me it was the equivalent to our Bronze Star Medal [the fourth-highest combat award of the U.S. Armed Forces], the hair on the back of my neck stood up. It was really overwhelming."
Dazzo earned the honor for his May 7, 2007 rescue of three men from a life raft more than 200 miles off the coast of North Carolina after their 44-foot Beneteau, Sean Seamour II, was knocked down and sank in hurricane-force winds and crippling seas.
The Star of Courage is Canada's second-highest medal for bravery, awarded for acts of conspicuous courage in circumstances of great peril. Governor General of Canada Michaëlle Jean presented the award to Dazzo Feb. 4 at Rideau Hall in Ottawa. Rudy Snel, 66, of Ottawa, one of the men Dazzo saved that night, was present at the ceremony.
"I'll never forget getting to the raft and asking them, 'How ya'll doing today?' " says Dazzo. "Rudy grabbed me by the collar, pulled me real close, and said 'You guys are f--in' amazing.' "
Snel was aboard Sean Seamour II with the skipper and owner of the vessel, Jean Pierre (J.P.) de Lutz of France who was 56 at the time, and Ben Tye from the United Kingdom who was 31. Snel and Tye had signed on with de Lutz to build offshore experience sailing Sean Seamour II from Jacksonville, Fla., to France with stops in the Azores and Gibraltar. Until that point, Snel's sailing experience had come on the Great Lakes aboard his 27-foot C&C, which he has owned for nine years. Tye was a sailing instructor. Sean Seamour II was well-equipped for an ocean voyage - including a GPIRB and backup EPIRB - and had already weathered two Atlantic crossings captained by de Lutz.
The real trouble began May 6 when the crew was about 217 miles east of Cape Hatteras, N.C. Sean Seamour II spent nearly half a day being battered around by Tropical Storm Andrea. "We rode it for over 12 hours with waves just pounding the hull. It would shake the whole boat," says Snel in a testimonial on www.uscg.mil. "Shortly before 3 a.m. we were knocked flat by what we believe was a rogue wave."
The boat righted itself, but about 10 minutes later another enormous wave hit the port side and rolled the boat 180 degrees.
The crew eventually abandoned ship for their life raft, riding what were later confirmed as 70-foot waves. Sean Seamour II sank after 5 a.m. Fortunately, one of the two safety beacons on the vessel - the older 406 MHz EPIRB - was activated when the boat capsized. (Read a full account of the men's story of survival on www.soundingsonline.com; keywords: Sean Seamour II)
Dazzo says he was on backup duty the morning of May 7 at Air Station Elizabeth City, and he was notified the station had received a signal from an EPIRB about 225 miles off Cherry Point, N.C. Dazzo headed out with an aircrew on a HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter at about 7:30 a.m. from the air station and arrived on the scene about an hour and a half later.
"On the way, we could see the weather picking up and the whitecaps below getting bigger and bigger," says Dazzo. "The wind gust was about 77 knots and the sea state was 50- to 70-foot waves."
A Coast Guard C-130 Hercules was already on scene to fly cover for the helicopter in the rough conditions, Dazzo says. The plane had spotted the crew in the tiny life raft at 7:11 a.m. thanks to a flare Snel was able to launch 50 feet into the air before it was blown sideways into one of the many mounting waves.
"Finding where the raft is saves us time and gas," says Dazzo. "When I was sitting in the Jayhawk putting my gear on, I didn't notice how bad the sea state was or how bad the conditions were in general. I was just focused on the task at hand."
The severity of the situation hit home, though, as he was being lowered to the water. The wind gusts were so strong that, at one point, he was pushed dangerously close to the tail of the helicopter. But he made it safely, sliding out of his harness just as he reached the crest of the waves. He began swimming toward the raft, still about 25 yards away, he estimates.
"The water temperature was probably in the 60s and all three guys were hypothermic by the time I got there," says Dazzo.
Dazzo says de Lutz was the first to be rescued because he had 10 broken ribs. The rescuer was able to get de Lutz into the rescue basket and hoisted into the Jayhawk. Dazzo, worried about the sea state, went back up into the helicopter to discuss alternative rescues for the other two men. Meanwhile, Snel and Tye were left tethered to the raft, waiting for Dazzo's return.
There's not much you can do when being tossed around by mammoth waves, says Snel. "You are so helpless."
Aboard the helicopter, the crew decided the rescue basket was still the best way to go. "About 15 minutes had gone by at this time," says Dazzo. The helicopter crew lowered Dazzo back down on the cable and flew him over to the raft. Back in the water, Dazzo managed to get Snel and Tye into the basket and they were hoisted to the helicopter.
Just as Dazzo was being hoisted up, however, a large wave dropped out from underneath him, practically bending him in half. He still made it safely aboard the helicopter, but was now injured himself.
"I was having pretty bad back spasms," says Dazzo. "I was in a great deal of pain and seasick on the flight back. ... I was throwing up a lot because I had ingested a lot of sea water."
Dazzo says they arrived in Cherry Point at 11:30 a.m. and there were four ambulances waiting for them - one for each of the three survivors and one for Dazzo, who was also treated at the hospital for pulled muscles in his back and mild hypothermia.
When he got home to Ottawa, Snel and Dazzo began e-mailing back and forth. Snel discovered Dazzo has a now-15-year-old daughter and a 4-year old son.
"I wrote a letter to his daughter to give her a better idea of all her father did for us," says Snel. "After Drew and I talked a few times, I went down to visit him on Dec. 19, 2009 when he and the aircrew were recognized by the Coast Guard."
The friendship solidified and when Dazzo and his wife traveled to Ottawa to receive his Star of Courage, they stayed with Snel for six days.
While Dazzo is humbled by the honor, he considers what he did to be all in a day's work.
"This was my calling," says Dazzo. "There is really nothing else I've ever wanted to do."
This article originally appeared in the Mid-Atlantic Home Waters Section of the May 2010 issue.