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Rescue swimmer a hero in 50-knot winds

Laurence Nettles earned the AFRAS Gold Medal for saving four men in 20-foot seas

Laurence Nettles earned the AFRAS Gold Medal for saving four men in 20-foot seas

A Coast Guard rescue swimmer who battled 20-foot seas during Tropical Storm Bill to save four fishermen off Louisiana in June 2003 was honored for heroism by the Association for Rescue at Sea.

The association also presented an award to the captain and crew of the 600-foot tanker Stolt Capability for an October 2003 rescue, during Sept. 15 ceremonies in Washington.

AFRAS awarded Aviation Survival Technician Third Class Laurence Nettles its annual Gold Medal for pressing on, despite increasingly ominous conditions and fatigue, to rescue the fishermen as their boat foundered about 40 miles south of Houma, La.

“Petty Officer Nettles’ intrepidness, stamina and determination in treacherous conditions were instrumental in the saving of four lives, and were in keeping in the highest traditions of the United States Coast Guard and those who risk their own lives at sea,” AFRAS treasurer Anne Skelton said in a statement.

The following accounts were taken from AFRAS reports.

Heavy rains and strong winds from Tropical Storm Bill were pounding the New Orleans area June 30, and a helicopter from the 8th Coast Guard District was responding to an EPIRB signal about 10 miles southeast of Timbalier Island. Winds reportedly were 40 knots and visibility less than a mile.

After an initial search of the area, the helicopter crew heard a mayday from the fishing vessel Saint Joseph. The fishermen reported that its pumps were unable to keep up with the flooding, and the vessel was sinking. The helicopter diverted to Saint Joseph’s position, about 15 nautical miles away, near the east end of Timbalier Island. As the helicopter headed west toward the eye of the storm, winds increased to 50 knots, the ceiling dropped 200 feet, and visibility decreased to 1/8 mile.

The Saint Joseph was dead in the water with all four crewmembers on deck awaiting rescue. Its aft deck was awash as it rolled more than 30 degrees in the heavy seas, making direct hoists from the vessel too dangerous. The crew deployed Nettles into the water about 25 feet from the vessel. One by one Nettles helped crewmembers into the rescue basket to be hoisted to the helicopter. The waves pushed the Saint Joseph away from Nettles, and on two occasions the helicopter crew had to hoist the rescue swimmer up in the basket to get him closer to the vessel.

While the helicopter maneuvered to raise the third fisherman, a 25-foot breaking wave nearly capsized the Saint Joseph, and washed over Nettles and the man. The helicopter crew lost sight of them. When they emerged, Nettles still had a grip on the fisherman. Nettles helped the fisherman to the basket and went on to save the last victim.

The AMVER plaque, which recognizes commercial mariners for seamanship and safety, was given to the captain and crew of the Stolt Capability for the rescue of 13 mariners off Vietnam in October 2003. The tanker received a distress call about a commercial ship sinking about 8 miles away. The captain quickly altered course and made radio contact with the stricken vessel, which reported 16 crewmembers on board.

When the Stolt Capability arrived on scene, the vessel was listing heavily to port. With winds around 30 knots and in heavy seas, the tanker maneuvered as close as possible, and the crew began to abandon ship. Twelve crewmembers were initially rescued, and two others were recovered from the water but showed no signs of life and didn’t respond to CPR.

The Rescue Coordination Center in Hong Kong designated Stolt Capability on-scene coordinator for the search and rescue of two missing men, one of whom was eventually rescued. The final crewmember was never found, despite a 10-hour search by four ships.

AFRAS is a non-profit foundation that supports services concerned with saving lives at sea. The Gold Medal has been presented annually since 1982 to enlisted members of the Coast Guard for extraordinary bravery. The AMVER award was established in 1996. n