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Coast Guard captain tells the story of dramatic tallship rescue

In this image made from video and released by the U.S. Coast Guard, a USCG rescue swimmer, in water at right, and a crew member use a hoist to bring up a survivors into a helicopter.

U.S. Coast Guard/AP

The task sounds insane: jump into a cold, churning sea in the midst of a hurricane. Swim from wave to crashing wave, finding shipwreck survivors. Guide them across the swells to a spot where they can be lifted to a helicopter.

For all the high-tech equipment involved in modern search and rescue, a successful effort still largely relies on the courage and physical ability of individual first responders. And it was this skill that allowed the United States Coast Guard officers of Elizabeth City, North Carolina, to save 14 crew members from the HMS Bounty, the three-masted sailing ship that went down in Hurricane Sandy on Monday, in one of the most dramatic feats of derring-do during the storm.

With his crews still searching for Bounty skipper Robin Walbridge, the man who oversaw the mission recounted the story.

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Captain Joe Kelly, who heads the Elizabeth City air base, got the call around midnight Monday, as Sandy roared up the Atlantic Coast. The Bounty, en route from New England to Florida, had tried to navigate around the storm and was sitting some 150 kilometres off Cape Hatteras. At the time, the crew felt relatively safe, but the ship was taking on water and having trouble communicating with the coast.

The base commander, a 26-year veteran of the Coast Guard, had a tough call to make. Should he send an aircraft into a hurricane, potentially putting his crew at risk? For about 15 minutes, he discussed the pros and cons with the Coast Guard's district office in Portsmouth, Virginia. They decided to do it.

Capt. Kelly dispatched a C-130 transport airplane towards the Bounty. The craft got close to enough to establish radio contact with the ship.

"They were giving the [Bounty] crew the opportunity to know they had somebody out there talking to them and know there was someone watching them," Capt. Kelly said.

For four hours, the plane circled nearby, relaying updates back to base. Then, the crew suddenly decided to abandon ship. The base launched two Jayhawk helicopters to carry out the rescue. Each Jayhawk carried two pilots, a flight mechanic and a swimmer.

When they arrived at the scene, 12 of the Bounty's crew were in life rafts, two floating in the open Ocean and two more, Capt. Walbridge and Claudene Christian, could not be found.

The swimmers jumped into the water and guided the survivors, one by one, to baskets attached to the ends of the hoists. From there, the mechanics lifted them up to the helicopters. For some two hours, the swimmers battled crashing, five-metre waves, winds blasting at 75 kilometres per hour and driving rain. During the rescue, one of the rafts overturned, dumping more sailors into the sea.

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"One of the rescue swimmers described it as being in a washing machine that was being dropped multiple times," Capt. Kelly said. "It's a lot of risk. But it's also something they train for."

As the crew were pulled from the sea, the Bounty slipped beneath the waves.

At 10 a.m., some six hours after the rescue began, the helicopters returned to base with the survivors.

But the mission was not over. There were still two crew members unaccounted for, and the Coast Guard dispatched the helicopters again. Helping them were rescuers from Florida and Georgia, and two clipper ships scouring the waters.

They found Ms. Christian floating at sea later that day. She was pronounced dead in hospital.

On Wednesday, the search continued for the captain. Among the searchers is Ross Dixon, on exchange from the Royal Canadian Air Force, who was set to fly a C-130.

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"I'm looking forward to it. The conditions should be a lot better. The sea state's coming down. The overcast conditions have moved on, there's a lot more sun and visibility," he said. "We're very hopeful we'll be able to find the remaining crew member of the Bounty."

And if his experience commander ever worried about the prospects for the operation's success, his faith in his crews gave him confidence.

"Launching them into hurricane-force winds and tropical storm-force winds is a challenge for anybody… those folks were getting beat up out there with the wind and the rain and the seas that they had to work through," Capt. Kelly said. "But we train well, and I trust my crews and I know what their capabilities are."

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