Humanity and heroism: the ethic of the sea


Somewhere deep in the Southern Ocean, a sailor puts out a call for help after the keel falls off his ocean racer and the boat begins taking on water.

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Miles in front, a fellow competitor riding the edge of a big ocean depression turns around in the 35- to 40-foot swells and slogs his way back upwind to rescue the stricken sailor, a move that will eventually cost the rescuer his rig.

In the Atlantic, a 31-foot trimaran battered by a series of gales begins to break up, losing parts of two amas. With the boat in danger of sinking, the sailor triggers his EPIRB and pushes the red button on his DSC VHF radio. Meanwhile, a 607-foot tanker that is part of the voluntary AMVER program is diverted to the trouble spot. After steaming for eight hours, the ship arrives on scene and the crew hauls the lucky seaman aboard.

Earlier this spring, a team of four Air National Guardsmen from the 129th Rescue Wing parachute at night with an inflatable boat into the Pacific about 1,400 miles off Mexico to provide medical assistance to a sailor who has suffered a head injury. All in a day's work, they will tell you.

Playground, proving ground or workplace, the sea has long fostered a rich tradition of selflessness and heroism, from long-departed good Samaritan seamen of all nations and persuasions to the U.S. Life-Saving Service, precursor of the modern Coast Guard.

Seafarers early on learn to help out one another because, well, there's a lot of water out there and you never know when you're going to need a hand, too.

"You recognize you're out there all alone," says retired Coast Guard Cmdr. Richard Dein, who for six years supervised the agency's rescue and survival systems program. "And you're dependent on other people if something goes wrong. That's why one mariner goes to the assistance of another. It's a very strong ethic with mariners. ... The humanity of man. One man helping another."

And it's "endemic" in everybody in the rescue business, Dein says. Firemen, policemen, helicopter crews, first responders. And, of course, the men and women of the Coast Guard, who Dein says are basically hard-wired to save lives.

"It's an attitude," the Coast Guard veteran says. "You can't buy it. It has to come from the heart. Saving a life - that's the highest priority."

The motto of the old Life-Saving Service was: You have to go out, but you don't have to come back.

The sentiment still resonates at the core of today's Coast Guard, even if the exact language is a bit over the top compared to professional risk assessment strategies of today's 21st century rescue agency.

"That's always been their driver," says journalist David Helvarg, author of "Rescue Warriors - The U.S. Coast Guard, America's Forgotten Heroes."

Be it surfmen manning the oars in a wooden pulling boat or a highly trained helicopter crew, this commitment to venture forth in the heaviest of weather to answer a distress call is part of the very fiber, the DNA, of the agency and its forerunner.

"The troops, I think, really live that," Dein says.

"Search and rescue is really what they do," says Helvarg, who spent part of two years observing and interviewing as many as 500 Coast Guardsmen from Alaska to the Persian Gulf. "The mix of patriotism, altruism and adrenalin really keeps them pumped up. A lot of them told me they wanted to be in a service that saves lives instead of takes lives."

For these rescuers, he notes, the "heroism is really built into the job."

Mariners of all stripes understand that the sea is not their home environment, says Helvarg, whose most recent book is the memoir, "Saved by the Sea - A Love Story with Fish."

"It's easy to get in trouble," says Helvarg, the founder and president of the environmental group Blue Frontier Campaign. "It's a wilderness. We still have big animals, big waves and strange areas we don't fully understand. And if you won't put out your hand to someone in trouble, you don't really belong out there."

The impetus for this column was the sinking this spring of the fishing vessel Northern Belle in the Gulf of Alaska and the dramatic mayday call made by the captain that saved his three crewmen. The skipper, Robert Royer, who stayed on the radio as long as he could, died as rescue forces scrambled.

To hear the mayday, search the archives at Keyword: Northern Belle.

"... sea, ship and stomach." - Charles Landery

This article originally appeared in the July 2010 issue.