The night was dark and the winds were gusting. The clank of the halyard hitting the flag pole from the wind seemed to be such a lonely sound at night. The storm was still raging, but according to the NWS it should be on its way out of the area in a couple of hours. MK3 Sam West came back into the Search and Rescue (SAR) station house after checking all the boat’s hatches again; making sure the 486 wasn’t taking on water. I had just checked the mooring lines and the dock shack; all was good. It was the last check of my 8-12 watch and I was looking forward to a good full night of sleep till morning muster at 8. Hanson was on his way into the watch room to relieve me and start up his 12-4 watch, better known as the mid-watch. I had just settled in my rack when I heard the SAR alarm go off, this was why I loved the Coast Guard. Sam came into the crew’s quarters and yelled “Dom, let’s go!” He ran down to the dock to light the engines off, as was the duty of the engineer on watch. BM2 Sonny Blair was our coxswain, and with 8 years on small boats was our most experienced driver, especially in weather like this. As I passed in front of the watch room I saw Sonny with his log book in hand checking with Hanson on the details of the call before running down to the boat. I was a couple of minutes ahead of him and would have all the mooring lines off and secured except for the last which I would throw off as soon as he gave the order. Sonny had run down the pier and jumped onboard. I heard him yell “Dom, Cast off!” right before he slammed the cabin door behind him. I threw off the last line and he hit the throttles full, and we were underway. With the siren blaring we headed towards the land cut in the choppy waters of the Big Lagoon, and eventually out the pass and into the Gulf of Mexico.
The National Weather Service reported waves would be 10 to 12 feet tall. When we hit the pass, where the Gulf water funneled through into Pensacola Bay, it must have been 25 foot seas. Going out was hell, so it was going to be an interesting night. The call was for a Navy helicopter from NAS Pensacola in the drink somewhere about 13 miles out. We were going to go out to the last known position the Navy gave us and then conduct an expanding square search pattern. As rough as it was, getting there was going to be some challenge on its own! The wind was gusting at about 40 mph and the boat was only making about 8 knots. Coming off the crest of the waves the boat was crashing into their troughs, hard! I got knocked down to my knees several times, even though I was prepared for the rough stuff, holding on the interior rails in the cabin and bracing myself. We were taking the waves over the cabin onto the deck behind it; we called it ‘green water’ because of the hue of color as it came over the top. I was so glad not to be out on the deck!
Sonny was talking on the VHF-FM radio to the station via channel 16 giving an updated position and status as we were getting closer to the center point of the search. As soon as he got off the radio I noticed he had a puzzled look on his face, “Boats, what’s the matter?” Sam asked. Sonny said “I feel the boat dragging; I think we’re taking on water at the bow”. He switched the forward bilge pump on, but we didn’t feel any relief. Sonny finally said, “Dom, you’re going to have to go out and check that forward hatch and dog it”. I winced, “Out there in this stuff?” “I wouldn’t have you do it unless we had no other choice, man”, Sonny replied. This was going to take few minutes to think about. Here we are in 20 foot seas with a big blow, and I was going to have to make my way forward; all the while just inches from going overboard. Then again, the other option was to let it go and having the boat eventually sink.
I knew what I had to do; “Well, we all got to go sometime” I thought to myself. I made sure my Stearns life vest was secure and turned the strobe light on that was attached to it. I opened the cabin door, bracing myself in the doorway. I grabbed the rail immediately outside the door behind the cabin and starting walking around to the port side of the cabin. I wrapped my right arm around the rail and gripped my wrist with the other hand. Once this was done, I waited for the boat to get to the crest of the wave and then started making my way to the bow as the boat came off of it on its way down to the trough. When we crashed into the trough, I stopped and waited until once again we were coming off the crest and again started going forward. I kept repeating this process all the while the waves crashing into me and the spray blowing into my face, making it impossible to see. I finally made it to the front of the turtle shell and wedged myself in between the rails that sank into the deck. The forward hatch rested in between these rails as well. The hatch was wide open with water pouring in. I unhooked the dogging wrench and secured the hatch.
After replacing the wrench, I once again secured my arms through and around the port rail and started making my way back to the cabin. I did this in reverse of the way I did it coming out. When I finally made it back into the cabin, my entire body was shaking. I had blocked any thought of me losing my footing and falling off the boat. I tried not to think about being lost out there in the crashing surf in the pitch black night with just a little life vest on, never to be seen or heard of again.
I was greeted by Sonny and Sam pounding me on the back, “great job, man!” “We are good to go!” We were able to get out to the search area, and as we searched I kept thinking about the unwritten motto of the Coast Guard, “You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back”. I really felt that to my core this night. Translated for the civilian population, even though it may be perilous to our own lives, we must go out to help those in need of our assistance. In doing this, we may end up not returning to our family and friends and the safety of our own homes. So I can say honestly, I feel good about what I do. I truly feel I am serving my country. By the way, a helicopter located the wreckage and we went out and picked up the survivors. All will live to see the new day. This is what we do; this is what we live for!