Teen rescuers honored by US Sailing

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Quick thinking, organization enabled group to rescue three people from drowning in LakePonchartrain

Quick thinking, organization enabled group to rescue three people from drowning in LakePonchartrain

When 14-year-old Clerc Cooper went sailing Jan. 13 with two of her friends, little did she know they would be heroes by the end of the day.

Cooper and her friends, Chris Algero, 15, and Jon Nunn, 14, all belong to the Southern Yacht Club in New Orleans and were recently awarded the 2008 Arthur B. Hanson Rescue Medal by US Sailing, along with a father and son, Walter and Rhett Leger, for saving three people from drowning in nearby Lake Ponchartrain.

Cooper says they were taking one of the yacht’s Flying Scots out onto the lake to get some practice.

“We all love to sail and we race together,” says Cooper. “We left at about 1 p.m.”

Cooper says they wore warm clothes underneath their life jackets since they knew the lake temperature was only about 56 degrees. The wind was coming from the north at about 14 knots, which was making the water very choppy and confused, according to Cooper. The lake is a saltwater estuary and is only about 12 to 14 feet at its deepest point, making it easier for high waves to kick up in snotty conditions.

“We noticed three people having a bad time of it, and they had all gone to the stern of the boat looking at their engine, which had gone bad,” says Cooper. “I remember the boat being about 15 feet long and looking a little unseaworthy, so we headed over.”

Cooper says a wave swamped the top-heavy stern shortly thereafter and soon all three people were in the water. The water at this point had risen to a two-foot chop. Cooper estimates the passengers were all in their 30s.

“None of them were wearing life jackets,” says Jon Nunn, who was skippering, in a phone interview with Soundings. “We were sailing over when Claire takes off her life jacket, throws it to the lady, and jumps in the water. Chris and I were like, ‘What just happened?’ ”

Nunn says Cooper grabbed an extra Type 2 life jacket from the boat before she took the plunge, and she was wearing a thermal wet suit under her Type 1 life jacket to keep herself warm. However, Cooper admits the water was colder than she expected.

“It was a bit of a shock,” says Cooper. “Their boat was about 15 feet away by this time, and I wanted to give the man the life jacket I had around my neck.”

But Cooper had to think fast. She estimated this man weighed about 250 pounds and could easily drag her under in a panic.

“It was a little scary to watch, because his eyes were bloodshot and started to roll back in his head,” says Nunn. “Chris and I were trying to get the woman to get into our boat, but she didn’t want to leave her boyfriend behind. She was hysterical by this point.”

Nunn says the woman was clinging to the side of the Flying Scot and began to sink into the water when the boys had to trim the sails to avoid rocks on the shore of the lake. Fortunately, the woman finally agreed to climb in the boat, and Algero and Nunn were able to pull her in. Meanwhile, a large crowd on land was forming. Resident Walter Leger and his son, Rhett, saw the overturned boat from the shore and notified the Coast Guard Station in New Orleans at about 1:15 p.m., according to a local news report.

Meanwhile, Cooper threw her Type 1 life jacket to the first man after explaining to him she was giving him her life jacket, and to avoid grabbing onto her. She then spotted a seat cushion off the overturned boat bobbing in the water, so she swam for it and gave it to the other man.

“Their boat was about 15 feet away, so I swam for it because I realized there was nothing more I could do for the men,” says Cooper. “I climbed on top of the boat and waited. It was awful because I still felt responsible for the people and I should help them.”

About two minutes later, Cooper spotted an 11-foot RIB coming their way with Leger and Rhett aboard. They were able to pull the men into the boat in a little more than a minute and bring them safely back to shore. But Cooper had to wait on the overturned boat until Chris, Jon and yacht members Cal Herman Jr. and John Gray retrieved her in a scat boat.

“When she called me from the club to tell me what had gone on, I kept interrupting her to yell at her, but she kept saying, ‘Mom, just listen,’ ” says Leslie Higgins in a phone interview with Soundings. “I was literally shaking; I was almost in tears when she told me she had given her life jackets away.”

However, Higgins admits it still scares her to think of what could’ve happened.

“I’m glad she got recognized,” says Higgins. “I told her that three people are still in the world today because she took the first step.”

Cooper says the lady told Algero and Nunn her name was Samantha after they got back to shore, but it was the only name they ever found out. While Samantha was at the yacht club, the boys took her to the kitchen and wrapped her in tablecloths. The two men were dropped off at the dock by workers at Landry’s Seafood House about nine miles from the yacht club and were also picked up by the paramedics. All three were sent to the University Hospital of New Orleans.

“I definitely wasn’t expecting anything from this,” says Cooper. “I did what I felt was the right thing, what was almost my duty as a human being. I did what any good person would have, or should have.”

The group was awarded their medal May 25 at the Southern Yacht Club. The award has been given since 1989 to skippers and sailors of pleasure boats or race support vessels that affect the rescues of victims from the water.