Book Details Coast Guardsman's Role in Sea Rescue


AIR STATION CAPE COD -- When Scott Higgins first saw 80-foot waves pummeling a small inflatable raft that skipped along the water at the mercy of the furious Atlantic Ocean, he doubted anyone on it could be alive.

"In my head, I was surprised anyone could end up in that situation," Higgins, who is currently stationed at Air Station Cape Cod and lives in West Falmouth, recalled about that day.

But the beaten, drenched and freezing three-man crew clung to the raft as it somersaulted atop waves large enough to swallow it like a minnow.

"A Storm Too Soon," a book by Plymouth author Michael Tougias, tells the tale of the surprise storm off Cape Hatteras, N.C., on May 7, 2007. The book, which was released this month, details the rescue of the three men aboard the Sean Seymour II.

"It's this story about incredible survival," Tougias said.

A few days before the storm, boat Capt. Jean Pierre DeLutz, 56 at the time, along with Rudy Snel of Canada and Ben Tye of England, set sail from Green Cove Springs, Fla., for a transatlantic voyage to France.

The three left in early May in an effort to avoid hurricane season. But on May 6, forecasts predicted winds reaching up to 35 knots, DeLutz, whose mother lives in South Harwich, said in an interview from his home in Southern France.

By 2 p.m., winds already whipped at about 60 knots and there were 30-foot waves, growing stronger, DeLutz said. A rogue wave smashed into the boat as the wind reached 80 knots at about 1 a.m.

"There's this incredible noise and I just see Ben ... flying through the air," DeLutz said.

With Tye and Snel pumping water out of the boat, DeLutz swam alongside the boat, in search of the life raft. He found it upside down trapped under the mast and spreaders, he said.

While DeLutz worked at freeing the raft, waves thrashed the boat, spinning it and throwing him into the woodwork and furniture. He broke 10 ribs.

"My adrenaline was making up and insulating me from pain at this point," said DeLutz, who had to cut off the raft's water anchors -- made to stabilize it -- in order to free it. The three stayed on the sinking boat for about 2 1/2 more hours before abandoning ship.

With no anchors, the raft tumbled and flailed, throwing all three into the water several times. DeLutz said he slipped in and out of consciousness in the throes of hypothermia.

Snel had managed to grab three flares to signal planes. As a Coast Guard plane searched for them, he fired one, which wasn't seen, DeLutz said. The second flare failed to start. He fired the last flare after the plane already passed over them, but someone onboard looked back and caught a glimmer of it.

"I'm kind of having trouble believing there's anyone alive," said Higgins, describing his role as an aviation maintenance technician first class on the C-130 helicopter.

With waves almost reaching the helicopter at some points, Higgins used almost double the usual length of cables to hoist people out of the water.

He also lowered the rescue swimmer to the desperate sailors. But heavy wind blew the line behind the helicopter at some points, leaving Higgins in fear that they had sent the swimmer out with no way back.

As cables in the line began to break, Higgins and the diver hoisted all three men out of the water to safety.

Tougias has researched many shipwrecks -- including one off Cape Cod detailed in his book "The Finest Hours," about the rescue of the crews of the Pendleton and the Fort Mercer. But the obstacles thrown at everyone involved in the rescue of the Sean Seymour II set it apart, he said.

"A lot of times you'll hear about a good story but can't sustain a book, Tougias said. "But this one had so many twists and turns."

And although Higgins has taken many other rescue calls since then, that was the most difficult.

"Everything I had trained to do up until that point -- it was training me for that," he said.

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