‘Violent’ Seas Sweep Coast Guard Rescue Swimmers Into Water After Saving 7 Crew

January 18, 2023Noelle Wiehe
A US Coast Guard sector diverted a cutter and launched two helicopters from coastal air stations on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2023, when they received a distress call from a crew member on board a disabled tugboat. US Coast Guard photos. Composite by Noelle Wiehe/Coffee or Die Magazine.

A US Coast Guard sector diverted a cutter and launched two helicopters from coastal air stations on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2023, when they received a distress call from a crew member on board a disabled tugboat. US Coast Guard photos. Composite by Noelle Wiehe/Coffee or Die Magazine.

A pair of elite Coast Guard rescue swimmers were swept off a wayward boat into “violent” seas off the coast of Maryland this weekend.

A Coast Guard helicopter crew hovering overhead could only watch as the two rescuers, fighting 12-foot waves, swam within yards of the ship’s propeller.

The rescue swimmers — known in the Coast Guard as Aviation Survival Technicians, or ASTs — had just hoisted seven crew members off of the disabled tugboat Legacy to two waiting helicopters.

AST2 Caleb Halle and AST1 Nathan Newberg had arrived at the tug on separate helicopters but worked together on the deck to evacuate the crew.

Tugboat Legacy

Tugboat Legacy sits dead in the water on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2023, after its tow line snapped while pulling a 290-foot barge offshore from Ocean City, Maryland. US Coast Guard photo.

As the two swimmers were about to be hoisted, they were swept over the boat’s stern, falling 8 feet into the water.

As a Coast Guard helicopter pilot looked down, she saw the tugboat propeller rise out of the rolling seas, just yards away from the swimmers.

A Call for Help

The rescue began 35 miles off the Ocean City, Maryland, coast when the Legacy made a distress call. The boat was towing a 290-foot barge from New Jersey to Guyana when its 1,000-foot towing line became entangled in its starboard propeller. The vessel tried to continue on one engine, but the tow line snapped and became ensnared in the port propeller.

“Because the vessel had no propulsion, it was dead in the water,” Lt. Cmdr. Tom Cogley, the MH-60T copilot, told Coffee or Die Magazine.

The Legacy’s seven crew members said they were preparing to abandon ship on Saturday, Jan.14, at around 3:30 a.m. when they activated their emergency position indicating radio beacon to notify watchstanders at Coast Guard Sector Maryland-National Capital Region.

The 154-foot Coast Guard Cutter Lawrence Lawson, homeported in Cape May, New Jersey, responded to the Legacy but maintained a safe distance from the tug to avoid the towing line flailing in the water.

rescue swimmers

Aviation Survival Technician 1st Class Nathan Newberg, a rescue swimmer currently stationed at Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City, North Carolina, poses for a photo at Air Station Savannah on Dec. 21, 2019. Newberg barreled off a tugboat on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2023, along with AST2 Caleb Halle, after they hoisted survivors from a disabled tugboat in "violent" weather conditions. US Coast Guard photo by Public Affairs Specialist 2nd Class Travis Magee.

AST1 Newberg, 38, said the cutter’s arrival was “a huge asset for us because they were able to ready the crew, evaluate the environmentals, and find the best way to hoist.”

An MH-60T Jayhawk from Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City, North Carolina, arrived and deployed a self-locating data marker onto the adrift barge, which had drifted more than a mile away by then.

A Coast Guard MH-65E Dolphin soon arrived from Coast Guard Air Station Atlantic City, New Jersey, dropped AST2 Halle on the tugboat, and began hoisting three Legacy crew members just after sunset in rescue baskets.

With the three crew members on board, the MH-65 departed to Ocean City Municipal Airport, leaving Halle with Newberg to hoist the remaining four crew onto the MH-60.

The two attached a trail line to the basket to keep control as it rose on the helicopter’s hoist.

rescue swimmers

A 290-foot barge floats in the Northern Atlantic Ocean after snapping loose from its tugboat Legacy on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2023, offshore from Ocean City, Maryland. US Coast Guard photo.

“I thought it worked really well to have a second rescue swimmer on there because I knew exactly his training level, what he was going to be comfortable with and everything,” Newberg said.

Throughout the hoists, Newberg said, the sea state was “pretty violent,” so as each crew member was hoisted, he would “watch the helicopter, tend the trail line, and then watch for the next set of waves to come through so that I could tell [Halle], ‘Hey, we've got a big one coming, hang on!’”

From the helicopter above, Cogley could see that the tugboat was “beam to the seas,” meaning the waves were rolling against the ship’s side as it was whipped by 34-knot winds, “which caused the violent rolling motion of the vessel.”

On top of that, Newberg said that he was getting pushed over by a “big, huge cable” each time the boat shifted with the sea. He stood on a platform on the stern of the boat about 3 feet higher than Halle, but he was still getting hit by the swells.

rescue swimmers

The Coast Guard Cutter Lawrence Lawson transits inbound to Washington, DC, for a port call Monday, March 6, 2017, before heading to its homeport of Cape May, New Jersey. The Lawson responded to a tugboat on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2023, to help save seven crew members who were stranded. US Coast Guard photo by Lt. Cmdr. Krystyn Pecora.

A Final Wave

After all the boat’s crew members were safe, Newberg and Halle clipped into a simple sling to hoist out. But as they stood together to be lifted, a wave hit that pushed them off the edge of the stern, plummeting 8 feet into the water.

“Some of these waves were so big, I thought that they would catch the lip of the boat and just roll it over,” Newberg said.

Watching from a helicopter above, Avionics Electrical Technician 3rd Class Jason Genzone shouted to the pilots that the swimmers had gone overboard, Genzone told Coffee or Die Magazine.

“I wanted to make sure that they are out of harm's way as quickly as possible,” Genzone said.

In the cockpit, Lt. Cmdr. Megan Peters immediately pulled the controls to gain altitude because she noticed as the boat rolled with the whitecaps, the propellers would emerge from the sea.

rescue swimmers

Coast Guard Aviation Survival Technician 1st Class Nathan Newberg is hoisted during a search-and-rescue demonstration on the Seattle waterfront, Aug. 1, 2012. Newberg was a crucial player in the rescue Jan. 14, 2023, of seven crew members from tugboat Legacy when it became disabled 35 miles offshore from Ocean City, Maryland. US Coast Guard photo by Public Affairs Specialist 3rd Class Nathan Bradshaw.

Halle and Newberg composed themselves, then gave Genzone the hand signal “to bring them up,” and he immediately started pulling them out of the water.

“Neither of us were hurt, so we were happy for that,” Newberg said.

Once they were in the cabin, Genzone checked in on both, still using hand signals to communicate, and got a thumbs-up from each of them.

With both swimmers and four Legacy crew members in tow, the Jayhawk headed to Ocean City Municipal Airport to meet up with the rest of the survivors.

Read Next: Coast Guard Ends Gulf of Mexico Search, 4 Bodies Recovered

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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