It was a windy October Friday morning as the ferry MV Puyallup pulled away from the Edmonds dock for the 10:30 run to Kingston. Chief Mate Steve Seyl was in the wheelhouse watching for boat traffic on the Sound, and casting an occasional glance at the kite boarders off Marina Beach getting an early start on the weekend, their colorful sails aloft, the brisk winds hopping them from wave crest to wave crest.
But this was not to be a normal run.
As the vessel picked up speed, Seyl noticed a kite boarder down in the water who seemed to be struggling to get back up.
“Usually kite boarders right themselves in a few seconds and continue sailing,” he said. “But this one was struggling longer than usual, and just couldn’t seem to get righted. That water is cold, and even with a wetsuit hypothermia can set in pretty fast, so I sounded the alarm to stop the ferry and get a lifeboat and rescue crew in the water.”
At the first peals of the alarm, deckhands Jim Lesh and Pat Eakes, both trained in water rescue, sprung into action. They ran to the inflatable rescue craft to find that crew members Karen Lewis, Armando Cantu, Randy Miles and Annette Johnson already had it unmoored and ready for launch.
Hitting the water, Lesh and Eakes sped toward the green sail of the downed kite board. But the victim was gone. Looking around they spotted her trying to swim to shore, right into the teeth of the wind and waves.
“She was already about a quarter mile from her board,” said Lesh. “She was swimming against the wind and current, but it was too strong for her. She was actually losing ground and being swept further out into the Sound. By the time we reached her and pulled her into the boat she was completely exhausted, scared and was showing signs of hypothermia. We immediately wrapped her in blankets and started first aid.”
And as if this weren’t enough, no sooner was the victim in the rescue craft than Lesh and Eakes spotted another swimmer in distress. They sped over to him, helped him into the boat, and soon found he was the first victim’s boyfriend who had attempted to swim out and rescue her, but also became overwhelmed by the wind and current.
Speeding back to the Puyallup, both victims were brought on board, where the crew had assembled first aid equipment and continued treatment for hypothermia.
Total time between sounding the alarm and bringing the victims aboard: a remarkable 12 minutes.
Both victims were lucky. While cold, scared and more than a little shook up, thanks to the quick action of the Puyallup crew members neither required further treatment. Both were released when the ferry returned to Edmonds.
“We regularly drill our crews on rescue boat deployment just so everyone knows exactly what to do in real emergencies like this,” said Port Captain Bill Michael. “Anyone who regularly rides the ferries has probably seen one of these drills where we stop the vessel and deploy the rescue craft. This is serious business, and is a critical part of ensuring that we respond quickly and effectively whenever the need arises. The fact that we could deploy our rescue craft, pull two victims out of the water, and get them back to the ferry in only 12 minutes attests not only to the value of this training, but to the skill, professionalism and dedication of our crews.”
Michael added that system-wide ferry crews typically handle 11 or 12 rescues each year, but that fully half of these are on the Edmonds-Kingston run.
“This is definitely our hot spot for rescues,” he explained. “Most involve incidents at the Brackett’s Landing dive park, where divers may experience distress underwater or are simply swept along by winds and current and carried too close to the ferry.”
But Wednesday morning was a time to honor the heroes, as Michael officiated at a small ceremony on board the Puyallup (coincidently on the same 10:30 run to Kingston) to recognize the crew members involved. Lesh and Eakes also were honored with the WSF Life Ring award for their skillful handling of the water rescue. (Eakes was unable to attend the ceremony due to scheduled time off.)
Reading from a letter from WSF Chief of Staff Elizabeth Kosa, Michael said, “Your quick and appropriate demeanor and actions during this stressful situation was critical to the saving of people’s lives. Had you acted in any other way, it is likely they would not have survived.”
— Story and photos by Larry Vogel