U.S. Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer Wins IMO Award for Exceptional Bravery

The tug Legacy, adrift in rough conditions off Maryland (USCG)
The tug Legacy, adrift in rough conditions off Maryland (USCG)

Published Jul 25, 2023 9:22 PM by The Maritime Executive

A U.S. Coast Guard rescue swimmer is set to receive this year's IMO Award for Exceptional Bravery at Sea for his effort to rescue the crew of a stricken tugboat earlier this year. 

At 0330 hours on January 14, 2023, the crew of the St. Kitts-flagged tug Legacy sent out a distress call to Coast Guard Sector Maryland. The recently-purchased vessel was under way with a 290-foot deck barge, headed for Guyana, when she fouled her starboard propeller on her tow line. The crew attempted to regain the tow, but the line fouled the port propeller as well, leaving the tug adrift. Facing violently rolling seas without control of heading, the crew reported that they were preparing to abandon ship. 

The cutter USCGC Lawrence Lawson diverted to the scene to assist the crew of the Legacy. However, the Lawson was unable to approach the tug because of rough surface conditions and the possibility that the line would foul her propellers as well. Instead, she stood by within reach while Helicopter CG-6566 attempted a rescue plan. 

The helicopter crew arrived on scene and began an attempt to hoist the crew of the Legacy off the tug's stern. Rescue swimmer AST2 Caleb Halle managed to get one crewmember into a rescue basket before he determined that it was too dangerous to continue in that location. He moved the operation to the main deck and had the helicopter reposition. In the new location, he managed to recover two further survivors. 

By this point in the operation, the helicopter was running low on fuel, and it had to depart for its base. Halle volunteered to remain with the tug and reassure the last four crewmembers while awaiting a second helicopter, CG-6024.

Helicopter CG-6024 reached the scene of the casualty at dusk, and the low light level made it difficult to coordinate between the Coast Guard aircrew and the men on deck. The helicopter attempted to lower its own rescue swimmer, and it took several tries to succeed in delivering him to the pitching main deck of the tug. Together, they got the last four men off the stricken vessel. 

After the survivors were off, Halle made a final sweep inside the tug to make sure that there were no further crewmembers aboard. While he was conducting the search, a large wave hit the tug, and his survival suit was damaged. This was not an immediate problem, since he was still on board - but that was about to change. As Halle and his fellow rescue swimmer were preparing to be hoisted off the stern of the tug, it pitched hard in the swells, and both were thrown into the water right next to the tug's propellers. Halle's suit began to flood. Luckily the helicopter was able to winch Halle and his colleague out of the water in time to save them both. 

The IMO's panel of judges agreed that throughout the operation, AST2 Halle "demonstrated exceptional bravery and determination, despite the extreme conditions and the complexities of a multi-unit rescue, coupled with communications failures."

Commendation certificates have also been awarded to four other individuals and crews. 

  • The crew of the tug SL Diamantina were commended for their part in a three-day-long coordinated rescue of 21 crew members from the bulk carrier Portland Bay.
  • José Cardoso Lemos, a subsistence fisherman, was recognized for pulling 25 survivors off the sunken passenger vessel Dona Lourdes II.
  • The crew of the fishing vessel Zhe Long Gang Yu 05668 were commended for their efforts during the rescue of another fishing vessel, the Zhe Ling Yu Yun 30058, which had caught fire. One crewmember from Zhe Ling Lu Yun perished in the fire, but 12 were rescued.
  • Another U.S. Coast Guard rescue swimmer, AST3 John Walton, was recognized for saving the life of a suspected robber who was thrown overboard from the stolen motor yacht Sandpiper when it capsized.

15 merchant ships were also recognized with a special commendation for saving the lives of migrants at sea.