Coast Guardsman to Receive Distinguished Flying Cross for Daring Vessel Boarding and Rescue

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Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Spencer Manson, a rescue swimmer, helped rescue the 79-foot sailboat Barlovento after it became disabled in dangerous weather on June 19, 2021, off the California-Oregon coast.
Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Spencer Manson, a rescue swimmer, helped rescue the 79-foot sailboat Barlovento after it became disabled in dangerous weather on June 19, 2021, off the California-Oregon coast. (Image taken from Coast Guard video)

The mariners aboard the 79-foot schooner Barlovento were in trouble on June 19, 2021. The yacht was nearly 80 miles off the California-Oregon coast, disabled and taking on water in 20-foot seas.

In the churn, a crew member suffered a broken arm and possible head injury. With no hope of sailing to safe harbor in 60-mph winds, the six aboard reached for their radio, issuing a distress signal.

At 3:45 p.m., watchstanders with U.S. Coast Guard Sector Humboldt Bay picked up the call and immediately dispatched the crew of MH-65 Dolphin CG6565, along with a C-27J Spartan aircraft from Coast Guard Air Station Sacramento, to the scene.

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During a normal at-sea rescue, the short-range MH-65 helicopter's rescue swimmer, Aviation Survival Technician 2nd Class Spencer Manson, would have been lowered directly to the vessel, taking care to avoid masts and lines, and maneuver a basket to hoist out the injured crew member.

What transpired that day, however, was anything but normal. And on Tuesday, for the work he did that day, Manson will receive the Distinguished Flying Cross -- the highest aviation medal that can be awarded for non-combat operations.

"This case was a great example of a successful, multi-unit effort and highlights the importance of standardized procedures. The careful coordination between the two helicopters with support from the C-27 allowed us to save all six sailors," Lt. Ryan O'Neill, a Dolphin aircraft commander at Sector Humboldt Bay, said in a statement at the time.

After figuring out that they couldn't deploy Manson onto or even near the vessel, the Dolphin crew lowered him 150 feet downwind of the Barlovento.

    As the boat flew past Manson at roughly 9 knots, the swimmer grabbed a line trailing behind the ship and hung on, eventually getting enough grip to pull himself hand over hand, through waves and wake, to reach the vessel. He then climbed aboard, but not before he was pitched up and down and slammed onto the sea's surface several times, according to Manson's award citation.

    Manson was able to prepare the injured crew member for rescue, jump with her into the 49-degree water, and swim to an awaiting basket to be hoisted into the helicopter.

    After the crew transported the patient to land and refueled, the members went back out to save those remaining, with Manson creating an "innovative, sliding-deployment technique" that let him hang off the boat and help the crew members jump into the water to be rescued.

    He saved three more people in that manner before handing over the job to a fellow rescue swimmer from Coast Guard Sector North Bend.

    For his "actions, skill and heroism," Manson will receive the Distinguished Flying Cross in a ceremony Tuesday at Coast Guard Sector Humboldt Bay in California.

    "His courage, judgment and devotion to duty in the face of hazardous conditions are most heartily commended," his citation states.

    The last Distinguished Flying Cross awarded to a rescue swimmer was given in 2021 to Aviation Survival Technician 3rd Class Jack Kelly for a nighttime rescue of a hiker who had plunged 100 feet off a cliff into the Rouge River in Oregon.

    Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify the circumstances under which a Distinguished Flying Cross may be awarded.

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