IMO Award for Exceptional Bravery at Sea 2015
The Great Pacific Race was always supposed to be a supreme test of strength and endurance. But what four competitors didn’t know was that, for them, it would turn into a gruelling test of survival that would literally place their lives in the hands of one brave rescuer.
It was with a mixture of optimism and respect for the ocean that Fraser Hart and his crew of Sam Collins, Colin Parker and James White set out from Monterrey, California, on Wednesday 18 June 2014, to row the 2,100 miles to the finish in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Yet just 77 miles and three days later, their Pacific dream was in tatters and their lives were hanging by a thread.
Soon after departure, their small rowing boat began to take on water. Hours later, with the weather deteriorating and the crew unable to stop the leak, it became clear they had to evacuate. The race support yacht was dispatched but, by now, the weather was so bad it could not reach the stricken rowing boat and its crew. There was nothing for it but to summon the US Coast Guard.
At 23.30, a rescue helicopter from San Francisco arrived on the scene. By now it was pitch dark, the wind had risen to 30 knots and 15 to 20-foot waves were crashing over the boat, which had almost submerged.
Aviation Survival Technician Christopher Leon was winched down from the helicopter into the darkness– a welcome sight for the survivors below. But as he entered the frigid waters to manoeuvre the first survivor into a rescue basket, they were immediately swept away by the swift currents. Yet with extraordinary strength and stamina, maintaining a firm grasp on the shocked survivor and swimming hard to keep them both afloat, AST Leon managed to lift the survivor into the swaying basket, enabling the flight mechanic to hoist him to safety.
The boat itself had now been swept some distance from the helicopter and was obscured by the high waves. With fuel running low, the crew decided to hoist two survivors simultaneously, directly from the sinking vessel.
The fuel level was now critical and the helicopter crew made the difficult decision to evacuate the scene and leave AST Leon and Fraser Hart, the remaining survivor behind. The helicopter's only liferaft was deployed but was instantly swept away by the gale force winds, leaving AST2 Leon and Fraser Hart no choice but to remain aboard the swamped vessel.
For more than two hours, AST Leon and Fraser Hart huddled in the tiny bow portion of the swamped vessel that remained above water, protecting each other from the breaking waves and freezing temperatures.
After delivering the first three survivors to emergency services ashore, the helicopter refuelled and flew back to the drifting rowing boat. Amid still raging seas, and in pitch darkness, the crew performed two more demanding hoists to recover the two men from the boat. Fraser Hart was finally delivered to Monterey Airport, to awaiting emergency medical services.
The aircrew returned to Air Station San Francisco, mentally and physically exhausted, after six taxing hours of flight time.
Due to his bravery, persistence and disregard for his own safety, Aviation Survival Technician Christopher Leon helped save four lives, and is the worthy recipient of the 2015 IMO Award for Exceptional Bravery sat Sea; and his colleagues on the rescue helicopter, Lieutenant Scott Black, Lieutenant Jesse Keyser and Aviation Maintenance Technician Michael Spraggins, will receive Certificates of Commendation.
To Make a nomination for the 2016 Award - contact IFSMA HQ.