Navy helicopter crew rescues family

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A Virginia family embarking on yearlong cruise including a possible trans-

Atlantic crossing had to be rescued before ever getting out of Chesapeake Bay.

A call came into the search and rescue unit at Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland the morning of Dec. 1. The 38-foot sloop Quintessence was foundering at the mouth of the Little Choptank River, with steep waves up to 6 feet and winds gusting up to 40 knots.

The family had set sail a day earlier from a Deale, Md., marina, with plans to sail to Florida for the winter. In spring they planned to cross the Atlantic and cruise Europe. The wind kicked up and surprised them, putting the family in danger. The Coast Guard was unable to immediately assist and commercial towing operations declined to go out in the extreme weather. A Navy helicopter rushed to the scene to rescue Daniel Grandon; his wife, Linda; their 8-year-old son Dylan; and the family dog, a border collie mix named Shatzee.

The following account is from information provided by the Navy rescuers.

The weather was clear when the Grandons set out in their steel-hulled 38-footer. The following day was clear and calm in the morning, but winds suddenly kicked up to 30 to 40 knots. “The wind came out of nowhere,” says Navy helicopter pilot Lt. Ryan Eisenhardt, who led the rescue.

The family decided to seek safe harbor by anchoring near the mouth of the Little Choptank River. But when the stern anchor line fouled their propeller, the boat swung abeam to the waves and began rolling 60 to 70 degrees, enough to submerge the rails.

The Grandons radioed the Coast Guard station in Baltimore for help, but the nearest Coast Guard helicopter was in Cape May, N.J. The Navy air station was only 15 miles away.

The Navy SAR team was on alert, though it was a slow day at the air station since many of the training missions were canceled due to the weather. After receiving the call, the team mobilized in minutes and headed out on what would be their first “real” rescue for each trained crewmember.

“The [coordinates] they provided us were dead on,” says Eisenhardt, who has been with the SAR team for two years.

Within 15 minutes the Navy helicopter — with Eisenhardt, Lt. Sara Burks, Rob Thorpe, Bryan Hast and Josh Bugbee on board — was hovering near Quintessence. Initially, Eisenhardt says he didn’t think the vessel was in immediate peril, so he was reluctant to send rescue swimmers into the water. Instead, he planned to stand by in case of an emergency until a Coast Guard boat arrived.

The rescuers stayed downwind of Quintessence and facing into the wind, where Eisenhardt could more easily keep the helicopter hovering. But as Eisenhardt and crew watched the rolling sailboat, they caught glimpses of its keel and feared a capsize was possible. The family was in contact with the helicopter by radio. They were calm but anxious to get off the boat, Eisenhardt says.

Rescue swimmers Thorpe and Bugbee donned wetsuits and leapt about 15 feet into the water. To avoid the swinging mast, Eisenhardt positioned the helicopter about 25 yards from Quintessence, where the waves would carry the swimmers directly to the boat. Still, it was a battle for them.

“You’re swimming along, a wave comes along, and you can’t see the boat for what seems like a minute or two,” says Thorpe in an account of the rescue on www.dcmilitary.com.

The next hurdle was climbing aboard the sailboat. Though the Grandons had lowered a swim ladder over the side, it was lifted off the rocking boat by a wave while Thorpe was attempting to climb aboard.

The rescue swimmers struggled, but were able to board the vessel, where they immediately began to help the Grandons — who were wearing PFDs — jump into the water and swim one at a time toward the helicopter.

Dylan was first to go. Bugbee held the frightened boy as he swam against the current. He secured a rescue strop around Dylan’s chest, then strapped his own rescue harness to the strop. Crew chief Hast hoisted them up as the winds buffeted the aircraft. Eisenhardt was focused on piloting the craft and relied on Hast to tell him what was happening below.

With the boy safely aboard, Thorpe helped Linda Grandon to the hoist, then jumped back into the water to coax Daniel Grandon to jump off Quintessence. Thorpe held on to Grandon, who was holding Shatzee. Since the strop wouldn’t work on the dog, the helicopter crew lowered a rescue litter surrounded by a rope mesh. Thorpe, Grandon and the dog struggled to get into the net, but were finally in place.

Once the family was aboard the helicopter, Eisenhardt headed for shore, where an ambulance was waiting. The entire rescue took less than an hour. Shatzee stayed at the air base while the Grandons were taken to a local hospital. No one suffered major injuries, and the family continued on to Florida.