Seay crew shines in rescue operation
By Lara Thomas and Katie Dunnigan
Danger on the high seas is something that Sailors, mariners and fishermen face every day. Storms can come out of nowhere, and ship machinery is often as dangerous as it is powerful. In the face of such indiscriminate peril, rendering assistance to endangered vessels at sea is a time-honored maritime tradition.
The crew of Military Sealift Command large, medium-speed, roll-on/roll-off ship USNS Seay continued this tradition May 7. The ship was called into action by the U.S. Coast Guard and was asked to lead a four-ship search and rescue mission for a sinking sailboat.
The 45-foot sailboat, Almeisan, was traveling from Connecticut to Bermuda when she began taking on water from 20-foot seas. A distress call went out from Almeisan as the crew prepared to abandon their foundering boat. While readying the lifeboat, the captain and another crew member washed overboard.
"The conditions were horrible," recalls Capt. Thomas Madden, Seay's master. "We were facing heavy rain and gale force winds with gusts up to 55 knots. Winds were sustained at 40-45 knots. We had 20 to 25-foot seas, easy."
Rough weather can be challenging for a large ship; for small watercraft, it can be deadly.
"As the wind increases, the seas, instead of just heaping up, will start to break and that will create a problem for a sailboat, especially if she doesn't have any power," said Capt. Madden. "Any sailboat would be bouncing around like a cork."
Working with the Coast Guard, Capt. Madden positioned the 950-foot Seay between the boat and the perilous weather to buy the sailboat more time and help calm the waters for a helicopter rescue. In addition to shielding the boat from the elements, the ship served as an emergency-landing platform for the helicopter.
"We were there in case the rescue took a little bit longer than the Coast Guard anticipated," said Capt. Madden. "If they found themselves getting into trouble, they knew they had a safety island."
The helicopter rescued all three remaining crew members from the flailing boat in less than 30 minutes. Unfortunately, the aircraft had to return to shore for fuel and was unable to search for the remaining two crew members lost at sea.
Seay - the only U.S.-flagged vessel in the area - took over as the on-scene commander when the Coast Guard left the scene. While maintaining communication with the Coast Guard, Seay directed a team of rescue craft including the Panamanian-flagged tanker Sakura Express, two other foreign-flagged container ships and two rescue aircraft. The rescuers scoured a 12-square-mile search area looking for the two missing crew members.
"At about 2 a.m., we directed Sakura Express to a specific location," said Capt Madden. "She looked around and didn't find anything, but we felt confident that she was in the right area and that something would be found.
"We asked them to tighten up the grid a little bit and conduct another search pattern. Sure enough, they saw a light."
The light they found was an illumination device attached to one of the crew member's life vest. Seay immediately relayed the man's location to the Coast Guard. A Coast Guard C-150 plane arrived around 2:30 a.m. and spotted the two men, one in a life jacket and one in a rain slicker. The plane dropped a beacon, but lost sight of the crew members in the rough seas.
The aircraft returned to shore for fuel while the four ships continued to search in the driving wind and rain.
Finally, at 3:40 a.m., Sakura Express spotted one survivor and brought him aboard. The body of the other crew member, who did not survive, was recovered by Sakura Express a few hours later.
With all five crew members recovered, Seay continued to support the rescue effort by sailing with Sakura Express to Boston. Seay served as an intermediary between Sakura Express and the Coast Guard throughout the 24-hour sail.
"Sakura Express was taking vitals and giving updates on the survivor's condition, and we were relaying the information," said Capt. Madden.
The captain believes it was not only the cooperation of the four ships and the Coast Guard that made this rescue possible, but it was also the teamwork of Seay's crew.
"We were all brand-new to this ship, and we came together to work as a team. This kind of chemistry is something that normally takes a long time," said Capt. Madden. "We all did it within hours."
Every member of Seay's crew had a part in this rescue, including the engineering department, who successfully changed speed and course at a moment's notice.
"Chief Engineer Mo Oliver and 1st Assistant Engineer Paul Ebaugh, along with the entire engineering department, did outstanding work," said Capt. Madden. Under the guidance of Chief Mate Paul Martin, the deck crew organized the ship's tiny hospital for potential patients.
"In addition to working the rescue, we had to practice good seamanship to make sure that we or somebody else didn't become a victim of the storm," said Capt. Madden.
Above all, Capt. Madden attributes the success of the rescue to the courage and professionalism of his crew.
"This ship wouldn't have been able to do what it did without the members of the crew," he said. "I just happen to be leading a great bunch of talented individuals."
Seay's flawless performance not only saved four lives, but it also earned the recognition of Vice Adm. Vivien Crea, USCG.
"Your quick response and expert seamanship during a severe nor'easter helped save four lives," said the admiral in a bravo zulu message to the ship. "Thank you for a job well done."