Avionics Maintenance Technician 3rd Class Austen Marshall cares for a dog rescued from Vancouver Island, British Columbia, on Dec. 28, 2022, after a sailboat wreck overnight. US Coast Guard photo courtesy of Avionics Maintenance Technician 3rd Class Austen Marshall.
When you’re 40 years old, and you’ve spent 17 years as an elite US Coast Guard rescue swimmer, maybe you feel every one of those hard days when you scream into the howl of the wind, waves, sleet, and rotor wash for the man to jump.
But there Aviation Survival Technician 1st Class Luke Wengrin was, watching 10-foot swells slap a wrecked sailboat pinned between two boulders, its mast flailing back and forth like a metronome in the roiling Strait of Juan de Fuca.
It was an hour or so past midnight on Wednesday, Dec. 28, just off British Columbia’s Vancouver Island. Above Wengrin hovered his MH-65E Dolphin helicopter crew from Coast Guard Air Station Port Angeles, waiting for him to figure out how to save the Canadian mariner and his dogs.
“It's more or less about problem-solving,” Wengrin told Coffee or Die Magazine. “You gain information and you analyze a situation till you come up with a solution that has an acceptable level of risk. And then you execute the plan. And that's what we did.”
During his 17 years in the US Coast Guard, Aviation Survival Technician 1st Class has saved lived in some of the country's roughest waters, including two tours on Alaska's Kodiak Island. He's pictured here as a third-class petty officer (left), alongside Avionics Electrical Technician 2nd Class Steve Murphy (right) unloading a medevac patient at Air Station Kodiak on Oct. 13, 2009. Wengrin had helped save the 46-year-old mariner, who'd become severely dehydrated while working on the fishing boat Outer Limits. US Coast Guard photo.
The sailboat skipper was clad only in a rain suit. He stood in bare feet on the deck of a grounded boat being beaten into flotsam, roughly 150 feet from a rock-strewn shoreline.
But he finally threw himself toward Wengrin, and the Coastie caught him, heaving him onto a rock spat at by the sea. Wengrin radioed his aircrew to ask if they could hoist him and the Canadian man up.
“No,” answered pilots Lt. John Schultz and Cmdr. Brent Schmadeke, the commander of the Port Angeles station.
And even if Wengrin and the mariner splashed to the shore, the pilots couldn’t retrieve them from there. There were too many tall trees rising from the beach. Wengrin stared out into the strait and figured they’d have to swim to an open spot.
So they dove into the whitecaps.
US Coast Guard Aviation Survival Technician 1st Class Luke Wengrin wades in shallow water as a man is hoisted to his MH-65E Dolphin helicopter by his flight mechanic, Avionics Maintenance Technician 3rd Class Austen Marshall. Screengrab from US Coast Guard video by Avionics Maintenance Technician 3rd Class Austen Marshall.
Wengrin signaled his team that he was ready for the pickup, and down came a trail line, followed by the rescue basket.
Wengrin heaved him onto the litter, and up the Canadian went.
Wengrin radioed to his team, “Okay, are we gonna get the dogs?”
“There’s a dog behind you,” he heard.
Canadian Dog Rescue (1920x1080, AR: 1.78)
A US Coast Guard Air Station Port Angeles MH-65E Dolphin helicopter crew returns to Vancouver Island, British Columbia, on Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2022, where they learned two dogs were stranded in a sailboat wreck overnight. US Coast Guard photo by Avionics Maintenance Technician 3rd Class Austen Marshall.
Wengrin made out what looked to be a black Labrador retriever in the black of the night, sitting on the beach.
It looked every bit of 100 pounds, and it was wearing a life jacket and was “just like watching everything,” the rescue swimmer remembered.
Avionics Maintenance Technician 3rd Class Austen Marshall, 27, was manning the hoist. He told Coffee or Die he watched Wengrin swim to shore, run up the beach, and then lead the dog to the rescue basket Marshall had lowered for them.
He said Wengrin “bear-hugged him,” and then Marshall winched up the swimmer and the Lab together.
“The dog was very stoic,” Wengrin said. “I think he understood.”
Debris from a sailboat that ran aground Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2022, floats on the coastline of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. US Coast Guard photo by Avionics Maintenance Technician 3rd Class Austen Marshall.
There were two dogs left to save, but the Dolphin’s fuel was getting low and the Canadian man seemed to be showing signs of severe hypothermia.
He said he couldn't feel his feet.
The crew coordinated with first responders at the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre Victoria to meet them for a handoff at a nearby Canadian search and rescue station.
And an ambulance was idling when the Dolphin arrived.
Marshall told Coffee or Die it was past 2:30 a.m. when he finally got home. But like the rest of the crew, he couldn’t get the two dogs they left behind off his mind.
The Strait of Juan de Fuca is a channel that sprawls roughly 83 nautical miles from the coast of Washington to the Pacific Ocean. The international boundary between Canada and the US runs down the center of the strait. US Coast Guard photo by Public Affairs Specialist 3rd Class Michael Clark.
The Coasties agreed to meet at 10 a.m. and make another pass at the wreck. Officially, their mission was to photograph the sailboat in case of environmental damage, like a fuel leak, but the Coasties hoped they’d spot the dogs and save them.
When the Dolphin reached the rocks, the crew found nothing but devastation.
“There wasn't any piece that even still resembled a boat,” Wengrin said. “It was all completely smashed into debris.”
They took their pictures and made a few passes along the shoreline, when suddenly Marshall shouted out that he saw an odd shape with a pink spot on it, curled up along the cove.
“‘That might be a tongue,’” the flight mechanic said, seconds before it moved. “‘That's a dog right there!”
Avionics Maintenance Technician 3rd Class Austen Marshall points out an image with a pink spot hunkered down on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, on Dec. 28, 2022, as his crew orbits the island where a sailboat crashed overnight. US Coast Guard photo by Avionics Maintenance Technician 3rd Class Austen Marshall.
Down went Wengrin. He found the wet brown and black ball of fur, but the dog seemed spooked by the wash from the Dolphin’s rotors.
So the rescue swimmer motioned for the pilots to back off. That calmed the creature down. Wengrin scooped him up, put him in the basket, and then clipped his collar to the litter for the ride up.
But the dog wiggled out of the collar. Thankfully, the animal didn't bolt out of the basket.
“He had survived freezing cold water for well over 12 hours at that point,” Marshall said. “He's a trooper. I'm sure he was tired.”
US Coast Guard Avionics Maintenance Technician 3rd Class Austen Marshall keeps watch as Aviation Survival Technician 1st Class Luke Wengrin approaches a dog in a cove that his MH-65E Dolphin aircrew expected to be one of the three with a man when he ran his sailboat aground on the coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, on Dec. 28, 2022. Screengrab from US Coast Guard video by Avionics Maintenance Technician 3rd Class Austen Marshall.
The crew fetched Wengrin and then they flew back to the Canadian station to hand over the dog.
Schultz, one of the pilots on the mission, said in a prepared statement that his crew members “are thankful for the happy outcome,” but it also was a bittersweet moment.
“We never saw another sign of the other one,” Marshall said. “We tried. We gave it all the effort we could, but we did not locate the final dog.”
Noelle is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die through a fellowship from Military Veterans in Journalism. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and interned with the US Army Cadet Command. Noelle also worked as a civilian journalist covering several units, including the 75th Ranger Regiment on Fort Benning, before she joined the military as a public affairs specialist.
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