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US Sailing awards Hanson Medal for Huntington Lake Rescue

by Jake Fish on 15 Apr 2011
Whelan reunion - US Sailing US Sailing © http://www.ussailing.org

US Sailing has awarded the Hanson Rescue Medals to two crews who saved three lives in an incident on Huntington Lake near Fresno, Calif. on July 23, 2010.

A day before the 2010Huntington Lake Yacht Club’s Annual Regatta, Don Whelan (Bonita, Calif.)and his crew, Alan Johnson (Seal Beach, Calif.) in their 18-foot Mercury Class racing sailboat were practicing against another boat skippered by Richard Whiteley (Los Alamitos, Calif.) and crewed by Kate Wall (Long Beach, Calif.).Their tune-up exercises ended when the four sailors heard shouts for help from the water in the distance.

At first, locating where the shouts were coming from was confusing. They could see an individual shouting and waving from a small rock island 100 yards off shore. They also saw three people in the water close to the island. Clearly in distress, the swimmers were bobbing in and out of the water.

Whelan immediately changed course and prepared to rescue the swimmers. Whelan, 57, and Johnson, 65, were both wearing flotation devices, and they had a pair of flotation cushions on board as well. On the first rescue pass the boat was going too fast to stop for the swimmers in the 12 knots of wind, but the two cushions and a life jacket were dropped in the water as they passed by.

'As we approached the swimmers, the first decision was how do we get each of them a flotation device,' said Whelan. 'They all looked tired and struggling to stay afloat. We had two cushions and one of us took our own life jacket off and threw something to each of them.'

Whelan circled back immediately, and on the second pass the three swimmers were grabbed as they held on to the leeward side of the boat in the 55 degree water.

'The next decision was how we would circle around and coast up to them and get each of them alongside the boat,' explained Whelan. 'We went forward a short distance, and tacked around, bore off, then jibed, and approached with the swimmers on the leeward side of the boat.'

'As we circled, and approached, we saw that one swimmer did not get to the floatation device so we coasted up to him first,' he continued. 'As we approached him, his head went below the surface of the water, and we coasted up to him so we could grab his arm. The others were not far away and could get themselves alongside the boat, with the aid of the flotation.'

While the swimmers were holding on to the boat, Johnson retrieved one of the cushions, laid it on the deck and lifted the first swimmer’s body onto the cushion. The remaining swimmers were more fatigued, so they tipped the boat as much as possible to get the rail closer to the water and lift the swimmers onto the cushion and into the boat. The cushion served as a slide that quickly and securely facilitated getting the swimmers over the rail and into the cockpit.

After the swimmers were safe and secure, they picked up the remaining swimmer on the island. The swimmers were breathing and conscious, but in need of medical attention. They sailed a mile back to the launch ramp where the paramedics could more easily access the swimmers coming off the boat.
After they were evaluated at the paramedic vehicles, two were released, but one was evacuated by helicopter to a hospital in Fresno.

'For me the lesson learned was how vulnerable anyone can be in, or around the water. Always take precaution, know your capabilities, and do not take unnecessary risks,' commented Whelan.

Later in the weekend there was a tearful reunion of swimmers and rescuers at their campsite. The young men had gone camping to celebrate a birthday, when they decided to swim to the island. The cold water and high elevation proved to be exhausting for the swimmers. One turned back, while the others continued. Whelan and Johnson were in the right place at the right time.

Whelan said, 'It all happened so quickly. We responded with common sense and instinct.'

The Arthur B. Hanson Rescue Medal is awarded by US Sailing’s Safety-at-Sea Committee to any person who rescues or endeavors to rescue any other person from drowning, shipwreck, or other perils at sea within the territorial waters of the United States, or as part of a sailboat race or voyage that originated or stopped in the U.S. Since it was established in1990 by friends of the late Mr. Hanson, an ocean-racing sailor from the Chesapeake Bay, the Arthur B. Hanson Rescue Medal has been presented to more than 170 boats. In the most recent 19 Hanson-award winning rescues, a total of36 lives were saved.

Any individual or organization may submit a nomination for a Hanson Rescue Medal. For more information, including nomination forms, click here.

For the most authoritative daylong seminar on safe seamanship, heavy weather tactics, weather forecasting, communications and boat preparation, register for an upcoming US Sailing Safety-at-Sea Seminar. Please visit the US Sailing Safety-at-Sea Seminar site for details on these certification opportunities here.

About US Sailing

The United States Sailing Association (US Sailing), the national governing body for sailing, provides leadership, integrity, and growth for the sport in the United States. Founded in 1897 and headquartered in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, US Sailing is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. US Sailing offers training and education programs for instructors and race officials, supports a wide range of sailing organizations and communities, issues offshore rating certificates, and provides administration and oversight of competitive sailing across the country, including National Championships and the US Sailing Team AlphaGraphics.

For more information, please visit www.ussailing.org.
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