The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A ‘monumental’ rescue: Coast Guardsman swims a mile in choppy seas to save four fishermen, one at a time

A Coast Guard spokesman called it “an amazing story,” a “monumental effort,” of the sort he’d never heard or seen before.

It started with an emergency call to the Coast Guard on marine radio at 1:40 a.m. Tuesday morning. The crew of the Jamie K, a 52-ft. fishing vessel, had run aground about 250 yards off Cape Blanco, Ore., lost power and was taking on water. The four fishermen on board were abandoning ship and and headed for their life boats.

That’s a routine call for the Coast Guard. They chopper over to the scene, lower a hoist and a swimmer and one by one, bring up those stranded in the water. But there was nothing routine about what happened next.

The Coast Goard MH-65 Dolphin helicopter took off from Coast Guard Station North Bend, about 60 miles north of Cape Blanco on the Pacific. It arrived at the scene fine, and began what seemed at first like a standard rescue, lowering Petty Officer 2nd Class Darren Harrity carefully into the water.

Coast Guard officer Darren Harrity is lowered from a helicopter into the ocean Cape Blanco, Ore., for a daring rescue mission in which he saved four fishermen. (Video: Facebook/ U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Northwest)

But then something went wrong and they couldn’t get the hoist back up. “A mechanical failure,” Chief Petty Officer David Mosley, a Coast Guard spokesman in Seattle told The Post.

“I think the pilot said, ‘Harrity, you’re going to be doing a lot of swimming tonight,” Harrity told KPTV. 

And he did.

He swam 250 yards over to the lifeboat, said Mosley, in five-foot waves, water already slick with fuel, the air thick with fuel.

He got the first man to leave the life raft, grabbed him with one arm, and with the other and the aid of his fins, swam 250 yards back to shore.

Then he swam back to the lifeboat, another 250 yards, grabbed the second fisherman and hauled him back to shore.

Then it was back to the lifeboat, another 250 yards, and back to shore with the third man. Then he returned to the lifeboat, yet another 250 yards to get the fourth fisherman, and safely returned him to shore.

Only then did he stop swimming.

“It was just me and my muscles and that’s it,” Harrity told the TV station.

It was “just a heroic effort,” said spokesman Mosley.

It was also what Harrity had been training for since the age of 19, and not without some trauma.

Harrity grew up in South Florida and “fell in love with the water,” as he tells it in an essay he wrote for the Web site,  Shallow Water Blackout Prevention, becoming an avid surfer, swimmer and spear fisherman.

He dreamed of joining the Coast Guard while in college and trained rigorously in a rescue swimmer program, which requires “immense underwater confidence.” His normal swim workout, he said, was a lot of laps, followed by eight “50-meter underwater laps with no breath,” and then “then 60 seconds treading water between laps for rest.”

During one of his underwater training exercises in 2007, he blacked out. A swimmer in the adjacent lane noticed something was wrong and pulled him out, as Harrity tells it. But he almost died. He had no pulse. And all he remembered was waking up in a hospital five days later.

“I was thankful to be alive, he wrote,”but my dream of joining the Coast Guard looked grim. When I was finally able to work out and go for a run I got full-body cramps.” But he said, he “stayed positive and worked hard,” and a year later joined the Coast Guard, graduating with honors as a helicopter rescue swimmer.

The winner of our recent Red’s giveaway, Darren Harrity, has shared with us his powerful story of a near death…

Posted by Shallow Water Blackout Prevention on Tuesday, October 7, 2014

And that was great news Tuesday morning for Jake Leach, and the other fishermen on the Jamie K.

“Thank you everyone for your support and concern about the boat the the crew,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “Glad everything went the way it should and that everyone made it out in one piece.

As for the boat, it’s gone. “Sure will miss the old girl,” he wrote.

Mosley couldn’t find enough words to describe his awe at Harrity’s extraordinary rescue. “It’s an amazing story,” said Mosley, a “monumental effort,”  “an amazing kind of feat. But that’s what our rescue swimmers train for.”