I’ve written before about the all-volunteer Smith Point Sea Rescue organization in the Northern Neck whose members are on duty 24/7 rescuing boaters in distress.
But a recent rescue shows how much these volunteers give of their time and effort.
The Northumberland County organization has two boats based in Reedville and two others on Lodge Creek near Callao. They were called upon July 29 when the county sheriff’s office got a 911 call from a panicked man in trouble on a disabled boat.
The caller reported that he was on a craft where the captain/owner had fallen overboard and vanished. Making matters worse, the caller said he had no idea where he was or how to operate the boat.
In short order, the dispatcher connected the caller with experienced captain Buddy Sylvia of Smith Point Sea Rescue, who asked the man if he could read the latitude and longitude on the boat’s GPS.
The caller couldn’t, but said he might have passed by a lighthouse, which Sylvia came to understand might be Smith Point Lighthouse off Reedville.
A rescue boat was immediately dispatched from Reedville with a crew of four, heading out into rough seas where the wind was blowing 15–20 mph with waves up to seven feet.
The rescue boat headed for the lighthouse as darkness fell, using search lights and radar. Figuring the disabled boat was being driven by wind and current, the crew began a search pattern in that direction.
A report of the incident said “After an hour of hopeless searching, one of the crewmen thought he heard a cry from the dark waters and swung his spotlight around to see a man rising and falling,” floating just 40 feet away.
“Incredulous at their good luck, the crew threw a tethered life ring to the man and hauled him aboard Rescue 1. The man was wearing a life jacket and told the crew he’d been in the water for about four hours. He was exhausted and terrified, but otherwise unhurt.”
The rescued man, the owner and operator of the disabled boat, said he and his friend had been fishing for cobia all day when they hooked a fish that tangled the fishing line in the boat’s propeller. To untangle it, the man said he put on a lifejacket and jumped overboard but lost contact with the boat that quickly drifted away.
Advised that the crew wanted to take him in for medical treatment, the man instead said “You must find my boat and the man aboard. He has no idea how it works.”
So the rescuers resumed their search pattern, and an hour later got a break when a crewman spotted a light bobbing up and down in the water.
It was the rescued man’s 26-foot cabin cruiser, his friend still aboard. In rocking seas, rescue boat captain Mike Romey got close enough to get a line aboard and connect the two boats. The second man was brought aboard, astonished to see the friend who had drifted away hours earlier.
The exhausted crew and their two passengers towed the disabled vessel to the Sea Rescue boathouse in Reedville, getting back just after 1 a.m. They were greeted by two county EMTs and two officers from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
After determining that both men were in good shape and their boat was secured, the rescued men were driven home to nearby Sunnybank.
The next day, Romey and his crew of Sylvia, Robert Gwaltney and Steve Bowen marveled at their incredible luck finding a man adrift in heavy seas and total darkness when they had no coordinates to follow.
Had their rescue boat been 50 yards to the left or right when the searchlight hit the man, they’d have gone right by him. They credited luck or possibly divine inspiration for allowing them to hear his cry over the din of wind and the boat’s motors.
Sylvia, who Smith Point Sea Rescue staffers say may have participated in more Chesapeake Bay rescues than anyone in history, characterized the outcome simply.
“Finding that man in the water was a miracle,” he said. “We had less than a million-to-one chance of finding him.”
Smith Point Sea Rescue is an all-volunteer group that serves boaters on the lower Potomac River, south to the Rappahannock River and across the Bay to the Eastern Shore.
The organization receives no financial support from government entities, depending solely on donations to fund its operation. It does not charge those it rescues and can be reached on marine radio channel 16 or by calling 911.
I’ve been out with Smith Point rescue crews and can say without reservation that they know their way around boats, the Bay and its tributaries. They also know the safe way to bring in disabled boaters in situations that range from running out of gas to running aground.
To read a log of their weekly rescues or to make a financial donation to the group, you can find their website at smithpointsearescue.com