Volunteer crew on a rewarding mission

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Greg Porteus, skipper of Launch 5, and his crew were not out on a rescue mission the day they spotted an empty two-person personal watercraft.

Greg Porteus, skipper of Launch 5, and his crew were not out on a rescue mission the day they spotted an empty two-person personal watercraft. It was a tough day on the water near the Bear MountainBridge, a span on the Hudson River about 50 miles north of New York City. The wind had kicked up some serious waves, and from the wheelhouse of the 52-foot former NYPD harbor patrol boat, Porteus could see the craft cutting circles in the water and uncontrolled. As Launch 5 approached, Porteus could see a hand gripping the throttle — a man desperately clung to the floundering craft.

Upriver, a tug pushing a barge radioed Porteus warning him to clear out of her path. Porteus reasoned there was no way for its captain to change course or to stop. Under pressure, the soaked man was hauled on board Launch 5 and a responding pleasure boat towed the personal watercraft to safety.

That’s when one of the crew reported some grave news from the saved man.

“You’re not going to believe it,” Porteus was told. “There’s three other people in the water.”

The man they rescued was not alone on the personal watercraft — his wife and two children, a daughter, 3, and son, 4, had been out with him.

“We went right past them. We were focusing on that guy.”

Astern, Porteus could see the remaining family members bobbing in the water.

The tug radioed again to clear out. It was nearly on top of them.

Porteus quickly weighed his options. There was no time to come about; he pulled the twin throttle.

“I went as hard as we could in reverse.”

The boat’s powerful twin diesel engines roared as he went backwards through the chop toward the rest of the helpless family.

A cruise on the river had turned suddenly dangerous for everyone.

The tug, informed of the situation, was still powerless to stop and Porteus was desperately trying to maneuver his 25-ton vessel to pick up the mother and her children.

With little time left, the three bobbing figures were pulled out of the water and Porteus went full ahead into a little protected cove near shore. The barge and tug slid by, the danger was over.

Everyone was fine except the little girl. Hypothermic, she was brought into the cabin, nearly in shock. Porteus convinced her to remove her lifejacket —something her mother had told her to never do. Then, she was wrapped in a float coat and with the help of distraction from the television on the chart table, she slowly warmed up and recovered.

“I was shaking when this was over with,” Porteus recalls.

“That day I had guys ready to perform.”

Leaf-peeping with Launch 5

The first thing that lets you know you’re near the berth of Launch 5 is not her distinctive silhouette, but the sound of her engines. She sat at idle in her slip, her twin Caterpillar diesels grumbling, ready to head out into the windswept waves of the Hudson on a day not unlike that day with the tug.

This time she was not on a rescue mission, but an October sightseeing tour. The eight guests — four adults and their children — had been the highest bidders at a charity silent auction and were onboard to go leaf-peeping. A steady breeze blew from the west, raising the waves to between three and five feet.

“It’s a little challenging of a day,” Porteus says, glancing over his shoulder from one of the two pilot chairs as he eased Launch 5 out of its tight berth at the Shattemuc Yacht Club. A retired New York State Trooper, Porteus is solidly built and still keeps his gray hair in a crew cut. He and the three crewmembers on this outing all sported the boat’s navy blue jackets with a “L No. 5” logo on the breast pocket.

His understatement about the conditions was punctuated by all eight guests piled in the wheelhouse, safe from the rough water, the folding chairs set up on the stern deck near the small galley sitting empty. The fact that Porteus could go out with minimal worry is a testament to the boat’s design. Launch 5 and her sister ships were the concept of legendary race boat designer Philip Rhodes. Under contract with New York City, Rhodes was asked to design a boat that could handle the worst the harbor could dish out.

“New YorkHarbor is the most dangerous commercial harbor in the world,” crewmember Robert Daraio explains. A camera man for a network news channel, Daraio is also the town constable for Ossining.

“Philip Rhodes solved that problem with this design.”

After six years of being on the river, Porteus has learned how tough his boat is.

“They’ll take on anything,” he says.

“It’s like half a tug, this thing.”

From the depths

A tug is exactly what Porteus was looking for after his retirement from the state police. His dream was to turn a workboat into his personal pleasure craft. Not finding one he could afford, he turned to the boats his father used to work on as a New York City policeman. Launch 13 was for sale, but the price was out of Porteus’s range. That’s when he learned about Launch 5.

The boat actually has two names, as all NYPD harbor boats do. Launch 5 was commissioned as the Henry A. Walburger in 1966. It’s a tradition of the police to name their boat for fallen officers. Walburger, 24, was gunned down in 1964. A burglar had entered the Second Avenue Manhattan apartment of a mother and daughter. Two officers went to the front door of the apartment. Walburger and another officer were in the back of the building. According to the police report, three bullets crashed through the window from inside and hit Walburger on the fire escape. After a tense back and forth, police apprehended the thief, but Walburger died, leaving behind his wife and four children.

His name lived on in his son, Henry Jr., and in Launch 5. For 30 years the boat served the New York City Police in the harbor; but when Porteus found her, she needed to be saved herself.

“I found her sunk,” he says.

Launch 5 had been retired by the police and sold in the late 1990s. Not long after, she was found stripped and at the bottom of the PassaicRiver near Newark, with only her cabin breaching the water. She was now a navigation hazard.

Porteus went to work salvaging the boat — first on dry land with all the paper work, which was a daunting task by itself. The recovery required a boat, six pumps, an excavator and a lot of help from family and friends. It took 12 hours to raise the boat, but when they were done Launch 5, full of mud, was again afloat.

Lashed to a tug, the boat was pulled to the Viking Boatyard in Verplank, N.Y., for a refit. Not surprisingly, it was a big job.

“I used to wake up in bed sweating, asking myself ‘What am I doing?’ ” Porteus recalls.

Through his research on the boat he had learned about Walburger and the boat became about more than just having a work boat for a pleasure craft:

“I got maybe halfway through the hull job and I couldn’t stop. “The name Patrolman Walburger is what it’s all about.”

The family of the fallen police officer and men who had served on Launch 5 learned of Poretus’s project and took an interest.

“When they found out the boat was being restored, they mailed me all the original equipment.”

That included the original plaque screwed into the aft bulkhead dedicating the boat to Walburger for his heroism, and the original mahogany name placards which were re-affixed to the boat.

“It took three or four years to get it back in the water,” Porteus explains. That included replacing the rusted steel hull below the waterline, and refitting the launch with all new electrical equipment and controls. He painted the boat the original green and re-dedicated it in honor of Walburger, emblazoning the officer’s name on the hull.

A second life

Porteus can’t even explain how or when it happened, but Launch 5 is no pleasure boat. In their own brand of volunteerism, he and his crew have created their own emergency service on the river.

Unsupported financially by any government agency, Launch 5, an official not-for-profit foundation, has become a rescue boat. Patrolling a couple times a week between the Tappan ZeeBridge and the Bear MountainBridge and always on call, Launch 5 aids and supports the local sheriff, police and fire department agencies. Aside from donations made by nostalgic former Harbor Unit officers and groups that have used the boat, Porteus pays for it all out of pocket, roughly $20,000 a year.

While financial support is welcome, Porteus is happy to serve, as is his crew.

“It’s a rewarding situation,” he says. “What the boat was built to do, it’s doing.”

In rough waters, says Porteus, “we’re the only boat that can be there if there’s trouble.”

The Coast Guard is hours away, he explains.

“We can stay on station for days,” a benefit of having a head, a refrigerator, and benches that can double as bunks. “If there was a real serious thing, we’d be handling it.”

Just having a capable boat isn’t what made Launch 5 a resource on the river.

“What demands the respect is the crew — the crew is well-oiled,” Porteus says. “We’ve earned our respect out there.”

Launch 5 is a registered Coast Guard Auxiliary vessel, designated No. 523356, another, if less exciting, name. Porteus holds the rank of coxswain and most of the crew holds some rank in the auxiliary.

Even without that training, some remarkably capable people have gravitated to Launch 5.

Bill Smith, an IT strategist for a New York City area investment firm, has become the go-to person for Launch 5’s communications equipment and is its webmaster.

Over a beer at a bar near New York’s Grand Central Station, he explains his connection to Launch 5.

“My father used to take me out on these boats when I was a kid,” Smith says.

His father, Howard, served with Porteus’s father, Jerry, in the NYPD. Smith and Porteus lived near each other growing up in the Bronx, but weren’t really friends until Howard died. Smith saw Porteus for the first time in years at his father’s wake.

With his father’s death so close, Smith volunteered to join Launch 5, a tangible and comforting connection to his father.

“I do feel I’m carrying on his legacy,” Smith says.

Smith participated in the temporary installation and use of side-scanning sonar on Launch 5 in a mission to locate a body in the river, and in an experiment with the Coast Guard Loran Support Unit and Alion Science and Technology to determine how Enhanced Loran navigation signals behaved at fixed points in New YorkHarbor.

“We learn from our mistakes,” Smith says. “If you’re not committed to learn, you’re toast … and you’re off the boat.”

Cliff Forrest, a retired recon Marine Rescue Swimmer and combat veteran, is Launch 5’s engineer and electrician.

Forrest has pored over every detail of the boat, from the original schematics to the day-to-day operations of Launch 5.

“He understands this boat,” Porteus says.

Sergeant Mike Murphy, retired as commander of the NYPD Harbor Unit Launch Repair Shop, went right from the job to the restoration of Launch 5. Murphy was instrumental in the installation of the new Twin 385 Horse Power Caterpillar 3126 Diesels, which replaced the Detroit diesels that came up from the bottom of the river.

“He’s probably one of the best diesel mechanics in the country,” says Porteus.

Some crewmen, like Richard Detz, a 40-year veteran of Con Edison and Charles Luceno, a lawyer from Valhalla, N.Y., find the simple act of volunteering as their motivation.

“I love serving people. That’s why I’m doing this,” Detz explains.

The crew has put its varied background to good use.

The log section of the boat’s Web site, www.launch5.com, has entry after entry detailing searches for missing boaters and assists of disabled boats. The impact Porteus and his crew has had is obvious. The story with the family and the tug is just one in a list of tales.

When not searching for missing boaters, Launch 5 has volunteered for a number of projects, such as disaster drills and mock helicopter rescues. On Sept. 11, 2002, Porteus and his crew were part of the security in the harbor for President George Bush’s visit to Ground Zero. No stranger to movies (she appeared in “Crocodile Dundee” and “Splash” before Porteus owned her), Launch 5 may be in an upcoming Steven Soderbergh film. The director himself was onboard, and the crew of Launch 5 was in harbor patrol costume. Porteus and Smith are listed as “Harbor Launch Pilot” and “NYPD Harbor Sergeant” respectively on www.imdb.com, the Internet movie database, as cast in the film “Guerrilla,” a story about the Argentine revolutionary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara’s 1964 visit to the United Nations.

A book is even being written about the boat’s history.

Porteus’s dreams or retirement on the river have been more than he expected. And he still has time for charity cruises.

Always alert

On this particular trip, the leaf-peeping pleasure cruise almost became serious. Instead of heading north towards West Point as scheduled, Poretus had steered the boat south — towards the Tappan ZeeBridge. Above the din of the excited children and adults, Porteus heard over the radio an emergency call for a boater in distress. A hush fell over the cabin when he explained what was happening, the possible seriousness sinking in. When one of the rescue agencies radioed that they had reached the boater and responded, Porteus steered north again.

“Anybody who comes on board has to understand,” he explains. If a boater is in trouble, no matter who is on board, “if we don’t have time to go back in, we’re going.”

Porteus calls it “showtime.”

It was easy to see how someone could get into trouble. Porteus was edgy piloting the boat upriver, often grabbing for his binoculars. Waves sprayed water onto the cabin windows and the doors had to be closed to keep the water out.

“Which one of the kids has the best eyesight?” Luceno asked, trying to keep the atmosphere light. One of the children volunteered, and Luceno lifted her into the chair next to Porteus.

“Your job is to look out and see if there are any boats in front of us,” he explained.

The kids took turns in the pilot seat, and farther upriver, nestled in mountains, the waves finally calmed.

“It’s 11 feet from the bow to the water, and we took a wave over the roof,” Porteus said in awe of the now placid waters.

“It can change in a second.”

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