The call for assistance came in over the marine radio, galvanizing members of the into action. Someone had reported a small, capsized sailboat and possibly a person in the bay, and the US Coast Guard wanted them to respond.
The team, which had been training about a mile off shore, yanked up the anchor and the captain told the crew to hang on. The 26-foot power boat leapt forward in the water as Zane*, a 22-year-old senior from Michigan, gunned the engine, and the craft sped across Boca Ciega Bay toward Maximo Marina.
The call Wednesday, March 4, was one of about 600 a year the EC-SARS team – the only student search-and-rescue team in the United States – responds to annually, according to Coordinator Ryan Dilkey. By the time the students graduate with four years of training and experience under their belts, they have likely seen everything from sinking boats engulfed in flames to wounded boaters and even dead bodies.
“Although these are college students responding, they are extremely well-trained and experienced rescue personnel that often respond alongside or even instead of the industry professionals,” Dilkey said.
Through the program, the 50 or so students on the team each year learn to be leaders and become a tight-knit community with ties that often last the rest of their lives, said Dilkey, an Eckerd graduate who lives in Largo. They also learn skills that range from navigation and search planning to emergency medical response and equipment maintenance. For the weekly 10-20 hours they put in working and training they receive no pay and no academic credit.
Still, the team plays a critical role in keeping boaters safe in an area encompassing 500 square nautical miles, including Long Boat Pass to the south, John’s Pass to the north and 10 nautical miles into Tampa Bay, Dilkey said. They not only coordinate with commercial towing companies and local, state and federal law-enforcement and fire-fighting agencies, they also are contracted by Pinellas County Emergency Medical Services to provide basic life support during water rescues.
“It is great to see young people who are so engaged and energized to volunteer to serve the public,” said Craig Hare, Director of Pinellas County EMS & Fire Administration. “Water rescue situations oftentimes occur during hazardous weather conditions and these students are putting themselves in harm’s way to save lives and serve our community.”
And the assistance–for which commercial companies may charge $285 per hour–the team provides for free, Dilkey says. Of course, donations are accepted. With an annual operating budget of approximately $250,000, the team protected about $6 million worth of property from loss or damage and assisted 895 people in fiscal year 2013-14, according to Dilkey.
Since its founding in 1971, the EC-SAR team has participated in the most dramatic marine disasters in the area. It was there when the Coast Guard cutter Blackthorn sank after being hit by a tanker in January 1980, killing 23 people. Four months later, its now-defunct diving team helped pull bodies from the water when the freighter Summit Venture hit the Sunshine Skyway Bridge and a span collapsed, killing 35 people.
Most recently, it was student volunteers who pulled the body of five-year-old Phoebe Jonchuck out of Tampa Bay after her mentally ill father allegedly threw her from the Dick Misener Bridge, on the north side of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, in January 2015.
The Sunshine Skyway ranks among the most used for suicide attempts in the nation, Dilkey said. “I would say there’s on average one or two a month,” he said. “So we do deal with death and recovery fairly regularly.”
As for the search on March 4, the outcome was fortunately less dire. Crisscrossing Boca Ciega Bay several times scanning the water, the six blue-jumpsuit-clad team members finally spotted what triggered the call: an overturned dinghy that had likely broken off from a sailboat or a dock. No one was in the water. The team radioed in the registration number and stood by until a state law enforcement boat and another EC-SARS vessel arrived.
Dilkey said it was unlikely a student marine rescue team like EC-SAR could be launched in today’s more-regulated, high-cost environment.
“Our reputation goes a long way,” he said. “We have a very strong history of how special this program is and what it can do for the students.”
Zane, the captain on the March 4 call, can vouch for that.
She says being part of the EC-SAR team was one of the most rewarding and valuable aspects of her time in college.
“You learn a lot about working with others,” she said, “and a lot about yourself.”
* Eckerd College policy allows only students’ first names to be used to protect their privacy.