Coast Guard to honor pilot crew for January blizzard rescue

April 13, 2018

The blizzard that bore down on the Delaware coast Jan. 4 is little more than a memory now. But for a New Jersey sailor, lucky to still be alive, and the crews of two launches that carry pilots to and from inbound and outbound tankers and freighters in Delaware Bay, it's a memory that won't be going away any time soon.

Capt. Jerry Medd manages land-based operations for the Pilots Association for the Bay and River Delaware in Lewes. He said U.S. Coast Guard operations for Sector Delaware Bay called the pilots that day for assistance with a rescue in the mouth of Delaware Bay. With winds gusting over 60 and making freezing spray, heavy snow blowing, and 10-foot seas heaving, vessels everywhere were icing over. The Coast Guard needed help.

Medd said Coast Guard had reports of a man on a sailboat, first in the area of Brandywine Lighthouse and then in the Big Stone anchorage area several miles north of Lewes in the mouth of Delaware Bay. That's home territory for the pilots and their launch crews.

Medd said the sailor was on an iced-up 26-foot sailboat in conditions that looked unsurvivable.

Based on scant information Medd was able to gather, the 43-year-old man said he had gone to the boat in the dark hours of the storm morning to check mooring lines on his boat in Little Egg Harbor on New Jersey's southeastern coast. While he was aboard, the sailboat broke free, and winds and tides carried him and his vessel out into the bay.

Pilots Association President Capt. Jon Kemmerly authorized the crews to make a rescue attempt. "The Coast Guard asked for our assistance, and we were happy to help," said Medd.

He said launch crew members left the dock inside the ferry wall at Lewes somewhere around 2 p.m. Communicating with Fred Tinney, who was standing watch in the pilots' tower at Cape Henlopen, monitoring VHF emergency channel 16 and plotting the sailboat's position, Medd said the crews made visual contact with the sailboat at about 2:33. Seven minutes later, one of the launches was able to back down on the windward side of the sailboat and pluck off the grateful captain. "He was starting to ice up; his boat was taking on water, snow and ice," Medd said he was told.

Jay Lewis, one of the crew members aboard the J.P. Virden, said operating the launch from the windward side of the sailboat gave them more control as they surfed toward and away from the listing vessel. Once they pulled the captain aboard, they moved away as quickly as they could to avoid having lines or other floating debris on the sailboat foul their props.

"They never saw the sailboat again," said Medd. "I figured it would wash up on the beach at some point, but I've never heard another word about it." At the time of the rescue, the wind and tides had carried the increasingly heavy sailboat out of the bay and just east of entrance buoy No. 6 near Hen and Chickens Shoal off Cape Henlopen.

The vessel may surface yet. It's a 26-foot Seidelmann.

The launch crew members were the right people for the job. They go out to sea in all kinds of conditions to meet ships navigated by pilots of the association. But while they usually try to drop off and pick up their pilots on the leeward side of the vessels where there's protection from wind and seas, that wasn't on option for this rescue operation.

Medd said they had to time the seas and back down carefully to be able to snatch the sailor onto a rescue cut-out on the back of the launch. He said the sailor was eventually transferred to the emergency room at Beebe Healthcare where he was treated and released the following day.

"The last I heard, he was working on getting a ride back to New Jersey," said Medd.

In a presentation at the pilots station next week in Lewes, the Coast Guard plans to thank the members of the crew and the Pilots Association for assisting with the rescue.

Crew members aboard the Pilot Launch Lewes were Kane Bounds and Jay Lewis. Crew members aboard the Pilot Launch J.P. Virden were Jody Brittingham, Donnie Holladay and Connor Orton.