Mayday, Mayday!

I don’t like the look of this, Damian Sexton thought as he piloted his 12-metre Hatteras Convertible fishing boat through rough seas some 40 nautical miles (75 kilometres) off the coast of New Jersey, in the US. It was nearly 10pm.

When Damian, 45, and his friend Michael Schinder, 63, had set off on a tuna fishing trip from Cape May just before sunset on August 1, 2015, the Atlantic Ocean had been relatively calm. But a fierce storm was moving in and the Sea Robin, named after Damian’s wife, Robin, was being buffeted by two-metre waves. After checking the boat’s radar and seeing that storms were approaching, Damian pushed a button to set the boat’s trim tabs to help stabilise it in rough seas.

Damian, who owns a tree service in nearby Williamstown, is an experienced boater but the storms concerned him, as they couldn’t be avoided. Damian left Michael at the controls on the fly bridge and told him, “I’m going down to the state room to find my satellite phone and night-vision goggles.”

The state-of-the-art boat far exceeded Michael’s limited experience, but the boat was on autopilot, making a brisk 22 knots (about 40 km per hour) through the rough seas and heading for the Wilmington Canyon, which was 120 km offshore and known for its excellent tuna fishing.

The boat rocked and pitched in the waves as Damian clambered down. He was crossing the deck when a huge wave crashed against the Sea Robin and knocked him off the stern of the boat, sending him reeling headfirst into the Atlantic Ocean.

He screamed, “MIKE! MIKE!”

Another wave, then another, slapped him hard and forced him under the surface. Again and again he fought his way back up. Trying to tread water, he watched as the Sea Robin navigation lights soon disappeared from sight. He noticed lightning strikes approaching. He was alone in the dark without a life jacket; 40 nautical miles from land and fighting to keep adrift in increasingly violent, roiling seas. A thought flashed through his mind: My life can’t end like this!

Lieutenant junior grade Christopher Shivock was on duty as command duty officer at the Coast Guard’s Sector Delaware Bay command centre in Philadelphia when the radio suddenly crackled into life.

“Mayday, mayday. Man overboard!” The message was full of static but there was no mistaking its urgency. It was a call from Michael Schinder on VHF Channel 16, a radio channel reserved for distress calls, which was picked up by a container ship, the Maersk Westport, and relayed to the Coast Guard.

Shivock, 25, swung into action. The incident was immediately classified an emergency. Radioing Schinder for his position, he got a broken reply. Regional Coast Guard stations were placed on high alert, as were all vessels in the area.

Schinder’s mayday message had been picked up by several of the Coast Guard’s radio towers, but not clearly enough to triangulate the signal. The crew of the Maersk was able to communicate clearly with the Sea Robin, and was eventually able to relay Schinder’s position, about 44 nautical miles out to sea.

In Cape May, the Coast Guard station readied their 14-metre boat for a possible rescue operation. Meanwhile, a siren went off at the Coast Guard Air Station Atlantic City 70 km to the north. Helicopter pilot Lieutenant Tammy Whalen and her three-man crew listened as loudspeakers blared through the station, “There has been a report of a person in the water 44 nautical miles off Cape May. Now put the ready helo [helicopter] on the line.”

As Whalen organised a briefing for her crew she noted the heavy thunderstorms in the region. Nasty night for a rescue, she thought to herself. But it would get much worse.

Damian fought back panic as he tried to stay afloat in two to 2.5-metre waves. He stripped off his shirt, shoes and pants and tried to tread water, but the waves swamped him and he inhaled seawater.

The more water he swallowed, the more he vomited. Once he inhaled gulps of water into his lungs and – terrified of drowning – exhaled violently, forcing the water from his lungs. The salt water burned his mouth and throat, but he kept going. “Breathe, swim, breathe!” he told himself.

Whenever an especially large wave lifted him high, he could see the lights of a massive ship in the distance, perhaps 16 km away. He remembered seeing the same ship on the Sea Robin’s radar screen and decided to swim towards it. It was a 180-metre-long container ship, the Maersk Westport.

Now he had a target. He thought of Robin and their three boys, Bobby, 17, Cole, 11, and Giovanni, 10. Damian had lost his own father when he was just three years old, and he couldn’t bear the thought of Robin having to raise the boys alone. Besides, he had so much to teach them.

As lightning began flashing all around him, he envisioned someone going to his home and telling Robin and the boys that he had been lost at sea. “No way,” he told himself. The thought helped push him forward.

Shivock and the on-duty staff had received responses. Several fishermen in the area and the Maersk Westport container ship had radioed back, offering help. A Maersk crew member radioed that the ship would set a course for the position of the Sea Robin. The crew of the Cape May station’s 14-metre rescue boat was manned and ready, as was the helicopter in Atlantic City.

The Sector Delaware Bay command team plugged in the only detail they knew – the location of the Sea Robin – into SAROPS, the Coast Guard’s search and rescue computer program, which pulled the wind speed, ocean temperature and wave heights from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration server.

SAROPS calculated a search area and an ‘estimated survival time’ of 86 hours. But Damian had no life jacket, no-one knew his exact location and there was a raging storm in the area. Shivock and others knew that he would have a hard time surviving more than a few hours in those conditions. The clock was ticking.

After lifting off from the Atlantic City airport, Whalen hoped to avoid the fast-moving storms that blanketed the 260 km2 search area to the south. However, as she piloted her MH-65 Dolphin helicopter over Atlantic City, there were lightning bolts everywhere. So much lightning could take out the chopper’s electronics, or worse.

She told James Hockenberry, an aviation maintenance technician, “We can’t risk this.” Hockenberry radioed the Coast Guard’s command centre at Sector Delaware Bay that they were going to fly south to Cape May to see if they could reach the search area.

But the storm didn’t relent. Time ticked away as Whalen and her crew sat on the tarmac in Cape May waiting for a break in the severe weather. Frustrated and feeling that Damian’s chances for surviving in the open sea were dwindling, she told the crew, “I think we just killed him.”

Lightning bolts the size of tree trunks flashed around Damian. I’m going to get electrocuted! he thought as a bolt flashed into the ocean next to him. But he kept swimming.

His years of weightlifting and martial arts training had kicked in. He had been relentless at his tae kwon do classes. He would never give up and prided himself on working towards earning a black belt, and he had developed what tae kwon do practitioners call an ‘indomitable spirit’. It dictated, “You cannot be subdued or overcome in the face of fear or failure.”

Now Damian put failure – and fear – out of his mind. Then a wave lifted him and he saw the container ship, seemingly heading closer to him. I can make it, he thought. A huge thunderbolt exploded like a bomb right above him. He looked up and shouted, “Really is this all you got? You’re not going to beat me.”

Although Damian had no way of knowing it, the Maersk Westport had been in constant communication with the Coast Guard since hearing Michael’s initial radio message. Eventually it located the Sea Robin, which was no longer running on autopilot.

It reached Michael on Channel 16, manoeuvered itself alongside the Sea Robin and threw a very-panicked Michael Schinder a line.

Whalen and her crew returned to Atlantic City where they refuelled. This time when they flew over Atlantic City they were buffeted by strong winds but the lightning storm had moved on.

After more than three hours in the water, Damian was exhausted. He stopped swimming to tread water. While 2.5-metre waves crashed over him and buffeted him like a cork in the ocean, he realised the wind had shifted and was now pushing him towards the Maersk. Maybe they will see me, he thought, cupping his hands and powering through the choppy seas.

After another few kilometres a huge swell lifted him up again and he couldn’t believe his eyes: in the distance he saw the Sea Robin alongside the container ship! His entire body ached but he kept swimming.

Lieutenant Whalen was just about to crisscross the search pattern she was assigned when she suddenly heard a message come over the radio from the Maersk Westport: “Coast Guard, Coast Guard. There is a man in the water near the boat.” Somehow, against all odds, after almost four hours in the water, Damian had reached the container ship and the Sea Robin.

Whalen flew to the scene.

It can’t be! thought Michael when he first saw ‘a white blob’ in the ocean near him and the container ship. Fearful of being smashed against the container ship, he had cast off the line and was circling the area, hoping against hope that he would spot his friend. He stared at the blob and then heard the raspy-throated scream, “Mike! Mike! Don’t leave me!”

As the boat neared Damian, Michael cut the engine and threw a life jacket and a line to him. Damian grabbed on to the swim ladder at the stern of the boat. With a superhuman effort, he hauled himself up and onto the boat.

Remarkably, after putting on dry clothes and gulping down over a litre of orange juice, Damian set his boat’s autopilot for home and radioed the Coast Guard to say that he was planning to take the Sea Robin back to Cape May.

No way, thought Christopher Lynch, an aviation survival technician and rescue swimmer, when he heard this. He’s been in the water four hours and he thinks he is good to go? He told Whalen, “We need to check this guy out medically before we let him go.”

The crew lowered Lynch to the Coast Guard’s 14-metre boat. But the seas were so rough the boat couldn’t safely approach the Sea Robin. Lynch jumped into the ocean and swam to Damian’s boat.

Lynch knew immediately there was something wrong with Damian. The rescued fisherman began to shiver. Then he curled up into a shivering mass on a couch in the state room, his muscles contracting wildly. Damian was hypothermic and Lynch knew that he was in real danger of heart failure. Lynch radioed Whalen for a rescue basket to hoist Damian to the chopper.

The Sea Robin had an eight-metre tall outrigger at the rear of the boat that would interfere with a hoisting, so Lynch would have to help Damian, who was now close to being catatonic, stand up. Once on his feet, Damian was able to walk to the bow of the boat. The 2.5-metre seas and the fact that the chopper’s rotor wash would cause the Sea Robin to spin complicated matters.

Sure enough, on the first attempt, the basket from the chopper landed too far from Lynch’s grasp.

There was another problem. To keep it hovering above the Sea Robin, Whalen’s helicopter was using up fuel quickly. “Seven minutes,” the co-pilot, Lt. Jordan Kellam, warned Whalen. “We only have time for one more attempt,” he told her.

After a second failed attempt with the basket, Lynch hand-signalled to Whalen to drop a sling, hoping that he could grab it as it was lowered above him. Whalen was flying blind and relying on the helicopter crew to position her above Lynch, at the bow of the Sea Robin.

As Whalen flew over the boat it began to twist in the sea from the chopper’s rotor wash. Whalen fought the winds and expertly worked the controls with both hands and feet while the 5 mm steel winching cable was lowered. It dropped above Lynch, swinging over his head, and he grabbed it.

With just five minutes of fuel left before they had to leave the scene, Lynch placed Damian into the sling, attached his own hoistable vest to the rescue hook, and secured Damian’s chest strap. The pair was whisked off the deck and into the helicopter in less than a minute. While Lynch bundled Damian into a hypothermic bag, Whalen headed for Atlantic City.

Aboard the Sea Robin, Michael was accompanied home by a Coast Guard crewman from the rescue boat.

In hospital, damian was treated for hypothermia and a muscle-wasting condition called rhabdomyolysis caused by his ordeal – and released.

“This was one for the record books,” says Whalen. “We are especially thrilled because, sadly, most ‘man overboards’ do not end like this.”

As Damian later said, “You guys saved my life.”

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