Skip to main content

Once again putting his life on the line

Editor’s note: The non-profit Association for Rescue at Sea (AFRAS) held its annual awards ceremony Oct. 4 in Washington, D.C. The foundation supports services that foster saving lives at sea and honors outstanding acts of rescue. This year’s Gold Medal winner was a Coast Guard rescue swimmer who saved two men on a crippled sailboat in heavy seas. Other honorees (see related story) included a Coast Guard Auxiliary crew that halted a man-overboard drill to rush to the aid of a woman aboard a runaway jonboat and a container ship captain who rescued four sailors on a boat being battered in a gale.

Image placeholder title

Veteran Coast Guard rescue swimmer Randall Rice was about 150 miles off Cape Cod Mass., on May 10, 2011, being lowered into 30- to 40-foot seas amid an Atlantic storm kicking up 40-knot winds. A battered 45-foot sailboat, the German-flagged Eva, rocked wildly with two older sailors waiting to be lifted to safety, one incapacitated by injury.

The boat had rolled and lost its rig, and the cabin portholes were shattered. Rice, then 45 and drawing on some 40 search-and-rescue cases in his 16-year career, tossed a weighted line to one of the sailors, shouting to him to hold it and guide Rice as he was lowered to the boat. The sailor, not sure what to do, tied the line around his waist. “When I saw that, I just cut the line,” Rice says. One gust and Rice might have been blown back, pulling the sailor into the water.

Plan B was less risky — lower Rice into the sea. “The water was incredibly clear and incredibly warm. We must have been in the Gulf Stream,” he recalls.

Rice swam about 200 yards to the boat’s stern, where he was grateful for the sloop’s generous swim platform. “They were rolling 30-foot seas, but they weren’t breaking. They were just tossing the boat,” Rice says. He removed his fins, attached them to his belt and climbed aboard. One of the sailors was from Austria, the other a German. “But he spoke pretty decent English, which made it easier.”

The mast was down, and a tangle of sails and rigging had to be cleared from the deck before a rescue basket could be lowered. Rice learned that the skipper, Manfred Jabbusch, 71, had been injured when the boat was hit by a wave. “He was in a lot of pain and

really couldn’t move well,” Rice says. “They were both pretty beat up and were ready to get off the boat.”

The on-board perspective

Jabbusch, a veteran bluewater sailor who in 2000 sailed around the world aboard a Hallberg-Rassy 35, had recruited longtime sailing buddy Heinz Fragner, 68, to help him deliver a friend’s boat from Florida to Greece. As the storm swept over them, about 120 miles off Cape Cod, they weren’t overly concerned. Seas were big, but they weren’t cresting. “It was early in the morning, and I was on my laptop at the navigation table in the main cabin,” Jabbusch says in an email to Soundings. “Heinz was sleeping in his bunk because he had watched overnight in the cockpit.

“Suddenly, there was a big, big noise,” he says. The boat rolled, and water poured through the now-broken portholes. “The mast was broken, too, and a part of it came through the deck into the main cabin.”

Jabbusch was catapulted through the saloon and knocked unconscious. He recalls waking up on a wet mattress with extreme pain in his back and rib cage. He had a bloody gash on his face. Fragner, asleep in his bunk, awoke to water coming through the portholes. He later told Jabbusch his first thought was that this is the end.

Manfred Jabbusch (left) and Heinz Fragner were delivering Eva, a 45-footer from Florida to Greece.

Fragner scrambled to the main cabin and found Jabbusch. Neither was quite sure what had happened. Jabbusch tried to move, but the pain was too intense. They assessed the situation. The main cabin was in disarray. Provisions were swimming in water, but they could see that water was no longer coming in. The bilge pump had quit working, and four of the boat’s five GPS units were destroyed. A VHF radio and satellite phone remained functional.

Fragner used the satellite phone to call a German rescue center in Bremen, which contacted the Coast Guard Command Center in Boston. The veteran bluewater sailors did not have an EPIRB. They had a life raft, but the boat was upright and appeared to be intact. The German rescue center relayed word that the Coast Guard was responding. “At that point we were only a little bit worried because we knew someone was coming and it was early in the day, so they had much time in the daylight,” Jabbusch says.

About two hours later a Coast Guard Falcon jet was overhead, and it contacted the sailors on the VHF. Shortly afterward, an MH-60J was at the scene. By this time, Jabbusch had struggled out of the cabin and was slumped on deck. “Randy came down with a rope from the helicopter, went into the sea with its big waves and climbed to the bathing platform,” Jabbusch says. “We were very happy to see him.”

Getting off the boat

'Rescue swimmers like me truly love their work, but they realize they're putting their lives on the line.' - Randall J. Rice

Rice told the sailors how the rescue would play out, and the process began. A rescue basket with a weighted line tied to it was lowered. Rice used the line to guide the basket to a transom bench seat. Fragner steadied the basket while Rice lifted Jabbusch and placed him in it. Fragner held the basket, Rice held the trail line, and Jabbusch was hoisted to the helicopter.

Rice and Fragner waited for the basket to be lowered again. “I’d keep glancing over my shoulder, trying to gauge when the next wave would hit us, and we’d have to pause for that,” he says.

When the basket came down, Fragner climbed into it and was hoisted to safety. “It took us probably a minute and a half to get the first guy into the basket; the second guy took like 10 seconds,” Rice says.

Alone on the boat, Rice prepared to go back into the water. “As a rescue swimmer, you don’t ever want to get hoisted [from] the vessel. It’s safer in the water,” he says.

He stepped down to the swim platform, donned his fins, and jumped into the water, swimming until he was 200 yards from the boat. “It took maybe 30 seconds of swimming because, while I was swimming, the wind was driving the boat away from me,” he says.

A hoist cable was lowered, Rice clipped on, and he was hoisted to the helicopter. The entire rescue took about 20 minutes, he estimates. Fragner and Jabbusch were treated at Falmouth (Mass.) Hospital and discharged after being deemed in good condition. Jabbusch’s ribs were deeply bruised. “It was sad to leave the boat, but we had no option,” Jabbusch says, reflecting on the ordeal.

As fate would have it, Eva did not sink. She beached in Rhode Island about two months later. By then, however, the owner had given up the boat, and a local marina sold it.

Efforts honored

Rice received the Association for Rescue at Sea’s Gold Medal at an Oct. 4 ceremony in Washington, D.C. “Chief Warrant Officer Rice’s courage, judgment and devotion to duty are most heartily commended and in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Coast Guard,” AFRAS said.

“It’s awesome,” says Rice, who has retired as a rescue swimmer and now serves as a ship inspector for the Coast Guard. “I spent 16 years as a rescue swimmer, and I’ve received other awards, but for this to come from an outside entity, it means something more,” he says. “It’s also a great honor for the Coast Guard because rescue swimmers like me truly love their work, but they realize they’re putting their lives on the line.”

Looking back at the rescue, Rice says the call was “kind of unique” because of the distance offshore and the damage to the boat. “Usually the boat has sunk, and the crew is in water,” Rice says.

“Still, we had a tough time trying to find the boat. With no EPIRB, we were just relying on the relayed position, and as we flew we had a ceiling of less than 500 feet. We had to fly pretty low to find these guys,” he says.

After the rescue, he says, something unusual happened. “They were very, very happy about the whole thing, and they have stayed in touch, which is not typical,” he says. “I still email with Manfred, probably once a month. Most of the people we rescue will thank you and pat you on the back. But they were really grateful the Coast Guard rescued them because they knew what kind of trouble they were in.”

In fact, Rice invited his new friends to his daughter’s first communion party. “But they couldn’t make it,” he says.

As Rice was being honored in Washington, Jabbusch had again taken to the sea, single-handing his way from Germany to the Greek islands.

See related article:

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

December 2012 issue