Bjoern Kils, a German who grew up sailing the Baltic Sea, makes his living on New York Harbor running two NYmediaBoat.com RIBs out of Liberty Landing Marina for a variety of jobs — sightseeing tours, movie and TV shoots, towing, diving or whatever someone needs done on the busy waters he knows well.
Last Wednesday, a job took Kils, who is 34, outside the harbor toward nearby East Rockaway Inlet on the southwest shore of Long Island, N.Y. Earlier in the week, a tugboat sank and the barge it was pushing washed up on Atlantic Beach. Kils’ task was to mark the water off the beach and run a messenger line to a tug that was to tow the barge off the beach.
At 4:20 p.m., Kils heard a mayday on the VHF.
“This is the Sea Lion. We’re sinking. Men in the water. Water in the wheelhouse. This is our last transmission. We’re going down,” Kils posted on his blog.
The broadcast was promptly followed by the Coast Guard relaying the mayday and what turned out to be an erroneous position. Kils found the Sea Lion’s location on his Simrad AIS receiver — about 2 miles away.
Aboard his 26-foot Willard Marine RIB with a 230-hp Cummins diesel were two men from the salvage team and a friend along for the ride. “I had the throttle pinned, and my boat runs 30 to 35 knots with the hammer down,” Kils says.
Conditions were hardly ideal: fog and 6- to 10-foot rollers, he says.
“I had to use my radar to avoid the markers because visibility was only about 200 feet. You couldn’t see anything,” Kils says.
Kils, who considers radar and AIS must-have equipment, estimates he was on the scene within five minutes.
A 53-foot America’s Class launch from the Sandy Hook Pilots had already recovered three of the four Sea Lion crewmembers, who swam to the launch. The pilot boat was dead in the water with a fouled prop.
The fourth crewmember, the engineer, had broken several ribs trying to abandon the tug and was unable to swim to the pilot boat. Kils crept through the fog and found the man clinging to the few feet of the bow still above the surface.
“As I’m nosing in with my boat, he stands up on the bow and attempts to jump but flops down in the water. We hauled him on board in a matter of seconds,” Kils says. “I start backing out immediately because the tugboat was now sinking under my boat, and I don’t know what debris would come up. She was gone within 30 seconds after we pulled him off.”
They transferred the crewmen to the pilot boat, which has an enclosed heated area and medical equipment. The Coast Guard brought the four survivors ashore. The pilot boat was towed ashore.
When Kils docked at the Atlantic Beach Fire Rescue station, TV crews were already there with satellite trucks set up and cameras rolling. He was interviewed by several news teams.
Just in time
“I think it's fair to say that the AIS system saved these guys’ lives,” Kils says. “The coordinates broadcasted by the Coast Guard were 180 miles to the north of the sinking vessel — I’m not sure why. By working my AIS system I was able to mark the Sea Lion’s actual location. Realizing I was only 2 nautical miles away from her position enabled me to respond, resulting in a rescue, not a recovery.”
The rescue was especially gratifying in the wake of a New Year’s Eve accident, he says. A car plunged into New York Harbor while Kils had a job escorting a 210-foot yacht to its dock. He rushed to the scene, but the vehicle was gone, and the driver drowned.
Reflecting on saving the Sea Lion crewman, Kils says, “I think we did save his life. He was wet. He was cold. He was hurting. The timing was incredible.”