TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (June 2, 2014) – The U.S. Coast Guard is already busy this season as boaters head out on the water. They have already made several rescues in West Michigan in the past month and say they anticipate more than ever this year.
Members of the Coast Guard are some of the bravest men and women in the United States Armed Forces. They risk their lives to save ours in the most dangerous, life-threatening emergencies on the water.
“At the end of the day, we just want people to come home safe,” said Cdr. Sean Cross, commanding officer of Coast Guard Air Station, Traverse City. He leads 25 pilots, 11 rescue swimmers, and more than 100 others who keep the air station running. They serve the Great Lakes, lakes throughout West Michigan, and many others.
They invited me to join their team for a day.
First, I took a test to make sure I was fit enough to brave the frigid waters of Grand Traverse Bay.
The cold lake waters are a major factor in water rescues. “People need to keep in perspective that we just emerged from the longest winter in 35 years. The coldest winter in 35 years,” Cross said. That means the water will stay colder longer, especially at night, and pose an extreme threat to your safety.
Cross said if you go in the water, it’s a battle against time for survival.
The Coast Guard has a maximum of 30 minutes to get in the air after an emergency call is made. That’s why there are crews working round the clock to maintain their five helicopters. “One will go down for maintenance, and we have several backups to send out for search-and-rescue or normal training missions,” said AMT 1 Brenton Weller, a flight mechanic.
I headed out with the crew on a contract boat and was suited up in a dry suit. They warned me that, even with five warm layers in my suit, the water would be life-threatening.
I jumped in the frigid water with rescue swimmer AST 3 Tom McArthur.
“To be able to sit in the water without a dry suit, I can’t imagine how cold that would be,” McArthur said.
A personal locator beacon, or PLB, was our lifeline out in the bay. “That’s going to give us an exact position of where you are, and it’s going to repeat that position every 52 seconds, so we`re going to know exactly where you are,” Lt. Matt Krueger, aircraft commander said.
The Coast Guard recommends that every boat have a PLB on board.
The first to respond to our distress call was a boat from Coast Guard Station Charlevoix. They found location minutes after our PLB was activated.
“It takes pretty much the ‘search’ out of search-and-rescue, BM1 Timothy Rafter of Charlevoix station said. “It`s a good way of letting someone know you`re in trouble, especially if you`re out in a remote area.”
After being rescued by the boat, I jumped back into the water, this time to be rescued by a US Coast Guard helicopter. The orangev MH-65 is equipped with radar, forward-looking infrared, or FLIR, night vision goggles, and three members of the US Coast Guard willing to put their lives in danger to save mine.
If it were a real emergency, Coast Guard Auxiliary members may be called in. They’re a group of civilian pilots who just want to help. “We fly cargo flights and passenger flights and patrols and sometimes search and rescues,” auxiliary member Jim Johnson said.
As the time in the water passes, the PLB, warm clothes, and something as simple as a life jacket means the difference between life and death. “Life jackets are just so key to saving your life,” McArthur said. “If you get into a little bit of a bad situation, you can inflate it and you can float for hours and days, depending on water temperatures,”
The helicopter arrived with two pilots, a mechanic to man the hoist, and my rescue swimmer, who was also a trained EMT. He strapped me to a harness, and up we went into the helicopter hovering over the water.
“To save someone`s life,” McArthur said, “it’s the best feeling in the world. It’s very humbling sometimes to be able to.”
The Coast Guard has a temporary station in Muskegon with a helicopter during the summer months to have more crews near the lakeshore.
(Special thanks to Gazelle Sports for providing a wet suit. Rental wetsuits are available at their Grand Rapids location.)