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Students take part in nighttime rescue

Teenagers aboard the tall ship Denis Sullivan spot a capsized fishing boat while sailing to the Keys

Teenagers aboard the tall ship Denis Sullivan spot a capsized fishing boat while sailing to the Keys

A group of high school students on a school-ship voyage to the Florida Keys learned a real-life lesson in being good Samaritans when they helped rescue three anglers from their capsized fishing boat.

The 137-foot three-masted schooner Denis Sullivan, a school ship home-ported in Milwaukee on Lake Michigan, was sailing from Miami to Key West March 22 with 10 crewmembers and 16 Riviera BeachMaritimeAcademy students on board when one of the teens on watch spotted three signal flares in the night sky. Three more flares guided the Sullivan to a capsized 33-foot fishing boat 11 miles southeast of Islamorada. “We shined spotlights on it and saw three guys sitting on the hull,” says first mate Scott Hooper. “They were waving and hollering at us.”

Hooper says the anglers appeared to have been in the water for some time. The Sullivan’s crew alerted the Coast Guard, which dispatched a rescue boat, but the school ship reached the fishermen first. It was standing by to assist at around midnight when two of the frightened men — only one of whom spoke English — slipped off the hull into the 6- to 8-foot seas and started swimming against a 25-knot wind toward the school ship several hundred feet away. Hooper, 31, who had donned a life jacket and snorkeling fins, jumped into the water to help them, a strobe on his PFD enabling the deck crew to track him in the water.

One of the fishermen swam over to the Sullivan’s bow and grabbed onto a chain hanging from the bowsprit. The crew pulled him aboard while Hooper helped the other two to life rings so they could be pulled up, Hooper says. All three reportedly appeared hypothermic and were in and out of consciousness as the Sullivan crew administered first-aid on deck.

In the course of the rescue, the schooner crashed into the capsized boat, punching in a plank in the bow two planks above the waterline. Now the ship started taking on water. A Coast Guard helicopter dropped a dewatering pump to the Sullivan, but it and the schooner’s pump weren’t enough. One of two Coast Guard boats on scene delivered a third pump, which brought the flooding under control, according to the agency.

The three fishermen were evacuated by crews from Station Islamorada to awaiting emergency medical personnel in Islamorada.

Hooper says the Sullivan was never in danger of sinking; a watertight bulkhead contained the water to a small section forward. Hooper went back over the side at the bowsprit in a bosun’s chair and fashioned a patch made of plywood and a rubber mat to plug the hole. The ship sailed on to Key West, where crew strengthened the patch and sailed to West Palm Beach to replace the broken plank at the Rybovich Spencer yard, Hooper said.

The Riviera Beach students practiced seamanship skills on the voyage and spent a day-and-half in Key West, snorkeling and doing other scheduled activities. However, rescuing the fishermen was a far more compelling lesson. “It was definitely good hands-on experience for the students,” says Hooper. “It was a practical application of what they have been learning.”

Wisconsin’s flagship, the Denis Sullivan is a re-creation of a three-masted 19th-century Great Lakes schooner. She cruises the Great Lakes in summer out of Milwaukee, and the Keys and Bahamas in winter from Miami. She was scheduled to head back up the East Coast in April for summer cruising in the Great Lakes ( ).