MAYDAY South of Hell Gate

The broadcast came across the VHF at 11:25 a.m. that Saturday: “MAYDAY, MAYDAY, this is the sailing vessel Blue Moon. We’re stuck below a bridge on the East River by Roosevelt Island.”

Escorting a NYC Swim event, I happened to be less than two miles away from the described location, and able to respond to the mayday call. When I arrived on the scene within minutes, her mast was lodged mid-span of the Roosevelt Island Bridge, and the strong current had turned the 35-foot hull broadside, leaning her 40 degrees. Water was washing over her starboard gunnel as two sailors in red life preservers took the high side, fearing the boat might not stay afloat much longer.

NYPD Harbor Unit’s 35-foot response boat #351 also arrived on scene and picked up the distressed boat’s crew from the downstream side. Meanwhile, an FDNY rescue truck stationed itself on top of the bridge. Sparks flew as the team cut open a metal gate for two rescue divers to access a ladder that led them down the stanchion of the bridge. The firefighters asked to come aboard my boat and use her as their stand-by vessel while they assessed the situation.

Next, a 55-foot “Kenny Hansen class” NYPD launch arrived and tied off Blue Moon’s halyard to their bow in hopes of pulling the mast free. But the halyard stood no chance. As the twin 740-HP Detroit diesels lurched, it snapped and whipped back at the boat.

FDNY’s new 64-foot fast-response boat ‘Bravest’ was there within minutes as well, and took station upriver of the bridge. This boat can pump over 6,000 gallons of water per minute, and the lettering of the vessel’s name was cut from steel salvaged at Ground Zero.

The NYPD and FDNY secured the scene and determined that the best course of action would be to summon a bridge operator and wait for the lift-bridge to open and free the boat.

The situation was under control, and I returned to the NYC Swim event, with a renewed sense of vigilance to the swimmers. The whole episode is a reminder of the extreme difficulties posed by the East River’s notorious 5-plus knots of current.