Rescue Swimmer Awarded Aviation's Highest Honor for Daring SAR Response

Barlovento rolls in breaking waves as a rescue helicopter works to retrieve her crew (USCG)

Published Dec 13, 2023 7:09 PM by The Maritime Executive


The U.S. Coast has awarded the military's highest aviation honor to a rescue swimmer who helped save six people in a severe storm off the West Coast two years ago. 

On the afternoon of June 19, 2021, Coast Guard Sector Humboldt Bay received a VHF distress call from the crew of the yacht Barlovento, a classic 80-foot schooner with a storied pedigree. In a severe storm off the Oregon-California border, the wooden vessel was disabled and taking on water. One of the six crewmembers had sustained injuries to her head and arm. The situation was urgent, as the conditions on scene were rough, with winds of 60 miles an hour and seas of 20 feet. 

Watchstanders launched a fixed-wing aircraft out of Air Station Sacramento to provide overwatch and a Sector Humboldt Bay Dolphin helicopter crew. The Dolphin crew arrived on scene and deployed their rescue swimmer, Petty Officer 3rd Class Spencer Manson. The yacht's motion and the running seas were too severe to land Manson on deck, so the crew picked an unusual course of action: they dropped him in the water downwind of the Barlovento, knowing that the yacht would blow past him at speed. It did, making nine knots, and Manson grabbed hold of a trailing line in the water. In a scene ready-made for Hollywood, he pulled himself hand over hand against the current and climbed aboard the yacht from the stern. The motion slammed him into the water multiple times. 

Once aboard, Manson got the injured crewmember prepared for hoisting. It was still not possible to hoist someone off the deck of the pitching yacht, so both the rescue swimmer and the victim had to jump into the water. Once clear of the Barlovento, Manson helped the victim into a rescue basket, and the aircrew hoisted her up and flew her to shore. 

Manson returned to the Barlovento and helped safely hoist three more people, using a "sliding-deployment technique" of his own devising that let him hang off the boat to help the survivors into the water for retrieval. Another aircrew and rescue swimmer flew out to get the last two survivors. The Barlovento was left to drift in the storm. 

For his actions that day, the Coast Guard has awarded Manson the Distinguished Flying Cross Award. This recognition is the highest honor in aviation and is awarded to Navy, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard personnel who distinguish themselves for heroism or achievement in flight.