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Coast Guard Swimmers Recall Storm

July 3, 2000

HOUSTON (AP) _ Jason Jennison tackles 40 foot waves, swims through schools of sharks, and jumps from helicopters into the ocean in 100 mph winds.

As a member of the Coast Guard’s elite band of rescue swimmers, called Aviation Survival Technicians, his role has gained national attention with the premiere of Wolfgang Petersen’s film ``The Perfect Storm.″

The swimming squad of 200 _ comparable to the Army’s Airborne Rangers and the Navy Seals _ goes through a tough, four-month training program in which 80 percent fail.

``We have to be very fit and very strong,″ said Jennison, who has saved lives in two hurricanes and made his way through a school of 72 sharks to reach an endangered boat. ``Even after we graduate, our whole day is basically spent keeping in shape.″

For Jennison, that means running 10 miles a day, swimming for two hours and lifting weights for another two hours. The rest of the day is spent on calisthenics.

It was this strenuous program that retired rescue swimmer Dave Moore had completed when, in 1991 off Cape Cod, Mass., he swam into the heart of one of the century’s worst storms, chronicled in Sebastian Junger’s book ``The Perfect Storm.″

The 34-foot sloop Satori was sailing around Cape Cod, on its way to Bermuda, when it steered into a powerful gale. Hurricane Grace, expected to head out to sea, instead turned west. Swells that had formed far out in the Atlantic had miles to grow, and nothing to break them.

The boat was battered by 25-foot swells. The crew, experienced sailors, didn’t show their fear, but one woman wrote a goodbye in her journal and put it in her clothes. Another wrapped her passport in plastic bags, so that her body could be identified.

After the boat was knocked down twice, it issued a mayday signal. The same weather pattern would consume the Andrea Gail in ``The Perfect Storm″ and kill all six aboard.

U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Kenneth Schnardthorst, now based in Corpus Christi, was the first on the scene, flying over in a Falcon jet. Streaking through the steely sky, the plane rising and falling in the hurricane-force winds, he remembers feeling ``like a bug being shaken up in a pill bottle.″

He dropped a raft to the sailboat.

``It was a perfect drop,″ he recalled. ``One of the women caught the trail line in her hands.″

But the raft failed to inflate, leaving the crew members even more desperate.

Schnardthorst, more than anything, remembers how difficult it was to keep his composure in the thick of the storm, not because he was nervous, but because he was sick.

``I was so airsick from the high winds,″ he said. ``And I was out in the storm 12 hours.″

The Coast Guard sent a cutter to the rescue, but soon a smaller rescue boat launched from the cutter was taking on water, its bow broken by the high swells. The lives of the rescuers also were in danger.

Moore, who is now a firefighter and paramedic in Santa Rosa, Calif., jumped 15 feet from a Coast Guard helicopter into 30-foot waves.

``The first time I swam to the sailboat, I couldn’t get to it,″ he remembered. ``I was blown back. The wind was blowing about 60 mph.

``I was nervous that things would go wrong,″ said Moore, who was 25 at the time. ``I was nervous that I would never get back.″

Moore climbed back in the basket to be hoisted up for another jump. This time he succeeded, urging the three on the boat to jump off into the high dark waves, and carrying them to safety.

Satori’s captain refused to leave the boat, saying he had sailed through hurricanes before, Moore said. So Moore declared the voyage ``manifestly unsafe,″ meaning he could force the captain to abandon ship.

Back in the helicopter, Moore realized his job wasn’t over. He had to jump again, this time to save the three Coast Guardsmen in their damaged rescue boat. They too, jumped overboard, and Moore carried them one by one back to the helicopter.

``I was never a great swimmer,″ Moore said. ``I was in good shape, but I was more interested in being a paramedic than the swimming part.″

___

On the Net: Aviation Survival Technicians: http://www.uscg.mil/hq/cgpc/epm/shoplist/ast.htmlAST2

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