ALEXANDRIA, Va., It's the nature of their business, but it's not their job.
When recreational boaters have a dead battery, run out of gas, or require a gentle tug off a stubborn shoal, the men and women who captain the nation's largest fleet of on-the-water towboats respond 24-hours a day or night, much like an auto club for boat owners.
However, with over 600 towing vessels spread across America's waterways, the law of averages dictates that life-threatening emergencies are an occasional event that unfolds on the seas and lakes around them.
As with any heroic act, the captain is faced with the split-second decision on whether to step in and try to save the individual or to call for help.
BoatU.S. Towing Services honored 11 of its TowBoatU.S. and Vessel Assist captains with its annual BoatU.S. "Lifesaving Award" at a ceremony that capped off the group's annual conference held recently in Arlington, VA.
"When lives were at stake these captains didn't blink, ultimately saving 34 lives," said U.S. Coast Guard Chief of Search and Rescue Capt. David McBride, who attended the event. "Because these professional captains were on the water, they were able to render critical assistance to fellow mariners when help was needed."
Here are the details on the incidents:
A deadly storm in Florida
Capt. Mike Dickens of TowBoatU.S. Lake George, Fla., responded to a vessel that capsized during a microburst. With people trapped underneath, he jumped in the water to assist the U.S. Coast Guard in righting the boat and then pulled out a woman and female child. Sadly, three others perished.
Too much alcohol in Miami
Capt. Dave Brewer of TowBoatU.S. Miami arrived on scene for a routine tow finding those onboard intoxicated and a female passenger floating face down in the water. Brewer performed rescue breathing, reviving the woman, and raced to her to urgent medical care.
Two watersports collide in San Diego
While on routine patrol, Capt. Shane Thompson of Vessel Assist San Diego witnessed a boy on an inflatable tube collide with a jet ski. Just as the boy was slipping below the surface, Thompson pulled him aboard and stabilized him until lifeguards arrived.
Wrong place, wrong time in Tampa Bay, Fla.
When Capt. George "Red" Ingram's towing vessel of TowBoatU.S. Tampa Bay was struck by a jet skier, Ingram's wife, Patti, jumped in the water to keep the head of the jet skier above water while Ingram made the mayday call. Both then stabilized the injured operator until a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter arrived and evacuated the accident victim.
Propeller injury in Tampa Bay
Capt. Clayton Tieman of TowBoatU.S. Tampa Bay witnessed a boater being thrown from his boat who subsequently fell into the path of the spinning propeller. Tieman retrieved the man, whose arm was nearly severed, provided critical first aid and rushed the accident victim to a waiting ambulance.
Seven non-swimmers and a burning boat in New York
With flames leaping from a disabled vessel's engine compartment, Capt. Jack Schachner of TowBoatU.S. Jamaica Bay, N.Y., safely removed all of the boat's seven passengers none of whom could swim. Schachner then towed the burning vessel to a nearby dock so authorities could extinguish the flames.
Boat collision tragedy in New Jersey
Capt. Tom Hurst of TowBoatU.S. Manasquan, N.J., responded to a collision between two vessels that had tossed three of five passengers in one boat into the water, leaving the two remaining passengers severely injured and trapped aboard while the boat turned uncontrollably in tight circles. Hurst was able to tow the boat ashore, providing first aid until assistance could arrive.
A heart attack, bridge jumper, overturned skiff, and hypothermic hunters
Capt. Lee Sykes of TowBoatU.S. Beaufort, N.C. and TowBoatU.S. River Forest, Fla., has a "knack" for stumbling upon life-threatening emergencies.
Last summer Sykes raced to a distress call from a boater who was having a heart attack. Sykes took the man aboard and raced him to a waiting ambulance. Later that day he found two adults and two children in the water after their skiff overturned. Sykes safely returned all to port with their vessel.
The next day while on a routine tow for a disabled boat, Sykes witnessed a man jumping from the Morehead City Bridge. He then pulled the man from the water and raced him to a waiting ambulance.
And most recently, Sykes responded to a distress call from three hunters whose boat had sunk, leaving the trio in cold, chest-deep water. Sykes and a fellow captain pulled two from the water while a third swam to shore.
Surf dangers on Long Island, N.Y.
Capt. Mark Graves of TowBoatU.S. Moriches, N.Y., saved the lives of a fisherman who fell from his boat into frigid surf, along with a Good Samaritan who had swam out to the foundering fisherman. Graves pulled both from the water and returned them to shore.
Nine cling to overturned hull in Manasquan, N.J.
Capt. Colin Reedy of TowBoatU.S. Manasquan, N.J., responded to the report of a 30-foot powerboat that had capsized and found nine passengers clinging to the overturned hull. Reedy safely returned all to shore.
Saved from a fire in Monterey, Calif.
Capt. Chelsea Wagner of Vessel Assist Monterey, Calif., responded to a boat that had smoke billowing from it, was able to locate and extinguish the fire, and safely tow the boat back to port.