Meet the Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer Who Swam With Sharks

October 14, 2022Noelle Wiehe
From left: US Coast Guard Lt. Katy Caraway, Aviation Maintenance Technician 2nd Class Dalton Goetsch, rescue swimmer Aviation Survival Technician 2nd Class Richard “Dicky” Hoefle, and Lt. Travis Rhea, an Air Station New Orleans MH-60T Jayhawk aircrew credited with rescuing three missing boaters off Louisiana on Oct. 9, 2022. US Coast Guard photo.

From left: US Coast Guard Lt. Katy Caraway, Aviation Maintenance Technician 2nd Class Dalton Goetsch, rescue swimmer Aviation Survival Technician 2nd Class Richard “Dicky” Hoefle, and Lt. Travis Rhea, an Air Station New Orleans MH-60T Jayhawk aircrew credited with rescuing three missing boaters off Louisiana on Oct. 9, 2022. US Coast Guard photo.

Last weekend turned tricky for Dicky, but the elite US Coast Guard rescue swimmer and his aircrew helped save six lives in Louisiana waters, including three men hunted by sharks.

The first life-or-death mayday message for Aviation Survival Technician 2nd Class Richard “Dicky” Hoefle came around 4 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 8, when watchstanders in New Orleans learned a shrimp boat crew was trying to fish out an overboard mariner in the Gulf of Mexico.

The man didn’t want to be saved, so officials scrambled Hoefle and his MH-60T Jayhawk helicopter aircrew from New Orleans and ordered them to rendezvous with a 45-foot response boat-medium team steaming from US Coast Guard Station Venice.

The boat crew got there first but were struggling with the swimmer, so Hoefle sent down a jolt of Narcan — a nasal spray used to resuscitate people overdosing on opioids such as heroin.

The crew gave the man a dose, and he was then taken by boat to University Medical Center New Orleans.

coast guard rescue swimmer

Narcan nasal spray for the treatment of opioid overdoses is made available for free in a vending machine by the DuPage County Health Department at the Kurzawa Community Center on Sept. 1, 2022, in Wheaton, Illinois. The vending machine is an attempt by the health department to reduce opioid overdose deaths in the county by making Narcan more accessible to the community. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

Hoefle, 33, told Coffee or Die Magazine he considered that a “minor call,” especially compared with the next SOS, which arrived around midnight.

A commercial tug sailing roughly 60 nautical miles off Alabama’s Dauphin Island spotted a flare arcing into the night sky. Watchstanders scrambled Hoefle’s crew to search for survivors of a sunken boat, but they never made it there, and another aircrew had to rescue the two men in a life raft on Tuesday.

Hoefle’s team instead flew to the Plaquemines Parish hamlet of Empire, about 43 nautical miles south of New Orleans. An 18-foot boat had speared into one of the canal jetties leading into the Gulf of Mexico.

First responders directed pilots Lt. Travis Rhea and Lt. Katy Caraway to land on Highway 23, an artery that parallels the Mississippi River running past the delta seafood ports.

coast guard rescue swimmer

A jetty is a line of rocks, dirt, or other material that’s used to create a breakwater to protect a harbor, coastline, or riverbank from waves. Sometimes boats slam into them, like the offshore supply vessel Miss Lynda, which ran aground off the West Cameron Jetties in Louisiana on Feb. 3, 2017. US Coast Guard photo.

Hoefle described a grisly scene, with three mariners ejected from the boat and draped over the rocks. He counted one dead person — later identified as Jose Granados, 49, of Baton Rouge — and two survivors who appeared to be half his age.

One of those men had suffered femur, clavicle, head, and pelvic injuries so severe “he couldn’t walk at all” and teetered in and out of consciousness, the rescue swimmer said.

The other victim appeared to be reeling from a traumatic head injury but still stayed “super calm” as both patients were placed in the helicopter to be rushed to University Medical Center New Orleans.

“He was just very happy that we were there,” the rescue swimmer said. “He was very happy to be alive still. I’m guessing both of them saw the third person who was deceased and his physical state, which was not a sight that a lot of people want to have to live with.”

Hoefle said the skin from the chin of one survivor “was peeled back toward his throat,” lying over the top of a cervical collar.

coast guard rescue swimmer

Aviation Survival Technician 2nd Class Richard “Dicky” Hoefle treats three rescued boaters for injuries on Sunday, Oct. 9, 2022. US Coast Guard photo.

Tasked with helping to bandage the survivors, check their vitals, and monitor blood loss, Hoefle called the rescue rewarding “because these guys were in some serious pain.”

After a meal and a nap, the aircrew returned to the sky to hunt for three fishermen who’d never returned to their delta marina after shoving off on Saturday to catch red snapper.

“They were now a full day overdue,” Hoefle told Coffee or Die.

One of the men had managed to fire off a cell phone text message: “Boat sank. Floating in the Gulf at this location. Send Help.”

The man’s phone battery had plunged to 2%, but he’d managed to send a map picture of the approximate GPS coordinates of the shipwreck, an image that looked like a tiny blue dot in the very wide Gulf.

“That ramps up everything really fast,” Hoefle said.

coast guard rescue swimmer

The US Coast Guard HC-144B Ocean Sentry is a medium-range reconnaissance workhorse. US Coast Guard photo.

Watchstanders scrambled an HC-144B Ocean Sentry reconnaissance plane from Corpus Christi, Texas, to trailblaze for both the rescue helicopter and a 45-foot response boat-medium crew sailing from Venice, Louisiana.

The plane’s high-tech surveillance sensors soon detected the missing trio about 30 nautical miles off Louisiana.

One of the men even waved at the aircraft.

“We put our nose forward and went to that location as fast as we could,” Hoefle said.

coast guard rescue swimmer

A Coast Guard Air Station New Orleans aircrew member holds up a torn life jacket from a rescue off Louisiana, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2022. One of the boaters’ life jackets was torn in a shark attack. US Coast Guard photo.

When they arrived, Hoefle spotted a survivor in an orange life jacket trying to signal the helicopter with his hands.

The aircrew counted at least five blacktip reef sharks circling him.

Two nautical miles away, the other two fishermen clung to a floating Yeti drink cooler.

So Hoefle decided to go swimming with the sharks.

coast guard rescue swimmer

An aircrew from US Coast Guard Air Station New Orleans hovers over the survivor of a capsized boat, Luan Nguyen, in the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday, Oct. 9, 2022. US Coast Guard photo.

He leaped into the water from about two stories up, dodging a “clearish pink” jellyfish as he plunged into waves cresting 8 feet high.

The Jayhawk’s rotor can be “a great thing because it creates a surface level of bubbles for the first foot, so I can’t see anything beneath me, which sometimes I love because I just don’t want to know,” Hoefle told Coffee or Die. “Sometimes, I just don’t want to know what’s beneath me. I just want to swim up here in my little bubble bath and relax.”

During Sunday’s rescue, the water was clear, which is why he knew he was splashing past sharks “in a jellyfish field.”

“In this case, it wouldn’t have mattered,” Hoefle said. “I was going to get in the water to save this guy no matter what.”

coast guard rescue swimmer

On Dec. 3, 2015, a diver approaches blacktip reef sharks in the lagoon of the island of Bora Bora. Photo by Gregory Boissy/AFP/Getty Images.

The Jayhawk’s flight mechanic, Aviation Maintenance Technician 2nd Class Dalton Goestche, lowered a basket to Hoefle. The rescue swimmer loaded the survivor into the litter, and then Goestche lifted him into the helicopter.

While in the water, Hoefle wasn’t able to get much more than mumbles out of the man — later identified as Luan Nguyen — but he understood his two raised fingers meant the other survivors were near.

Inside the helicopter, Hoefle learned that Nguyen, 46, had decided after a day in the water that his and his companions’ best chances for survival hinged on him swimming to a shrimping boat on the horizon.

But by the time he got within a mile of the shrimper, it had veered away without spotting him.

coast guard rescue swimmer

A blacktip reef shark swims over dead coral off the island of Huraa on Dec. 12, 2019, near Male, Maldives. Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images.

At least Nguyen had narrowed his distance to shore. He was able to get a bar on his cell phone and shoot a message to a friend for help before his battery died.

Then he waited. Nguyen told Hoefle he’d slipped in and out of naps while he was carried along by the waves.

He’d awakened to a jellyfish in his lap but had no energy to shoo it away, so he waited for it to bob away.

A shark attacked but got a mouthful of life jacket and didn’t like the taste. It kept returning to nibble at Nguyen’s hands, so he punched back.

“He did battle sharks. That’s for sure,” Hoefle said. “While we were there, they were encircled by four or five of them still.”

coast guard rescue swimmer

A US Coast Guard Air Station New Orleans aircrew helps a fisherman off a rescue helicopter. He’s one of three fishermen who fended off sharks before they were rescued on Sunday, Oct. 9, 2022, in the Gulf of Mexico. US Coast Guard photo.

The 45-foot response boat-medium crew tugged the other two men out of the Gulf.

Phong Le and Son Nguyen needed immediate medical care, so Hoefle’s crew hoisted them into the Jayhawk for the flight to University Medical Center New Orleans.

As each man entered the helicopter, the shark-bit survivor “just lit up,” Hoefle said. “It brought life back to him.”

They hugged each other. Hoefle remembers them saying, “Okay, we did good. We did this. We did this. I can’t believe we did this.”

Hoefle described the trio as “raggedy and hypothermic,” the skin from their chins like prunes after basting 28 hours in salt water.

coast guard rescue swimmer

US Air Force Gen. Paul J. Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, greets an Angel of the Battlefield award recipient, US Coast Guard Aviation Survival Technician 3rd Class Richard Hoefle, during the 2018 Armed Services YMCA Angels of the Battlefield Awards Gala in Arlington, Virginia, Oct. 2, 2018. Hoefle saved the life of a critically injured mariner while serving as the duty rescue swimmer on board a Coast Guard helicopter, swimming through heavy seas to hoist himself up nearly 3 meters onto the damaged vessel. He then treated the severely injured crew member with improvised tools while waiting nearly two hours for the rescue helicopter to return. US Army photo.

The rescue swimmer decided to leave the mens’ socks and shoes on, figuring he’d take skin with them if he tugged them off.

As the helicopter landed, Luan Nguyen told the rescue swimmer he’d been “100% positive that I was not going to make this,” and had been ready to give up until he saw the Ocean Sentry soaring overhead.

“They had some will to survive, so they played some of their puzzle pieces, and we were just the finishing piece,” Hoefle said.

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Noelle Wiehe
Noelle Wiehe

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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