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Science takes a back seat to safety at sea

A small boat moves toward a larger boat in the distance

When talking about the work done by the officers and crew of NOAA ships, we usually highlight how they support NOAA’s science missions. Their expertise in surveying the ocean floor, their dedication to facilitating data collection or their professionalism and unique skill set are often at the top of the list. 

One of the things that sometimes gets overlooked is their readiness to respond to other mariners or vessels who may be in danger. In reality, this is part of a mariner’s code–you help other sailors when needed. Probably if asked, our crew would say, they were just doing their job. However, the people they helped would likely say otherwise. 

We’re proud to share that the crews of three vessels in the NOAA fleet have been recognized for their involvement in rescues at sea. NOAA ships Thomas Jefferson, Oregon II and Ronald H. Brown were each recipients of the 2023 Department of Commerce Gold Medal. Their heroism was celebrated at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 6.

Reasons for Recognition

NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson rescued three fishermen in distress on Aug. 20, 2022. The fishermen, who had been caught in a storm on Lake Erie, were in a 12-foot bass boat without propulsion taking on water, several miles off the coast of Cleveland, Ohio. After hearing their distress call and seeing a red flare, the ship expertly maneuvered alongside and tied the boat off to the ship’s rail. They lowered a Jacob’s ladder (a flexible, hanging ladder) and treated the individuals for hypothermia symptoms prior to the U.S. Coast Guard’s arrival. Rescued personnel did not have enough personal flotation devices or foul weather gear and would have been unable to make it ashore without assistance. 

Three people standing in front of a banner
Crew members from NOAA ships Ronald H. Brown, Oregon II and Thomas Jefferson represented their ships at a Department of Commerce awards ceremony on Feb. 6, 2024. Credit: NOAA

NOAA Ship Oregon II assisted a vessel in distress on Oct. 16, 2022. While preparing for arrival in Pascagoula, Mississippi, Oregon II heard a radio distress call from a nearby vessel and diverted course to assist. The vessel was taking on water and without power, resulting in no available dewatering systems. The crew of the Oregon II worked together to deploy the fast rescue boat and provide engineering assistance to the mariner. They were able to stop the flooding, restore the vessel’s power and help with subsequent dewatering. This accomplishment saved the property, and potentially the life, of a fellow mariner. 

NOAA Ship Ronald H. Brown assisted a disabled sailing vessel with a broken mast and evacuating three people, hundreds of miles from Cabo Verde in the North Atlantic. On Nov. 28, 2022, the Brown was on a 40-day mission in the Atlantic to service buoys that provide critical information on the Atlantic climate system and collect data used globally for ocean and weather prediction. After transiting more than 200 miles to intercept the sailboat, the Brown’s crew assessed the needs of the disabled vessel and the condition of the crew. One person, who was injured by a falling mast, and two others were then evacuated from the disabled vessel via small boat in rough seas. Additional passengers decided not to evacuate and the Brown’s crew provided fuel to assist them. The rescued individuals remained on the Brown for the last several days of their transit, eventually ending in Newport, Rhode Island. 

Safety First 

These situations all ended well, but this is a good reminder for anyone going out on the water to take the proper safety precautions and ensure that safety equipment is present and in working order. Check out these safety tips and consider having a registered 406 beacon with you.

Top photo: A team from NOAA Ship Oregon II heads in a small boat toward a vessel in distress to provide assistance. Credit: Lt. Cmdr. Aaron Colohan, NOAA