The most intense rescue of Petty Officer 1st Class Casey Cann's career with the U.S. Coast Guard started like a novel Saturday, Feb. 15.
"It was a dark and stormy night," Cann said of the conditions in the waters off Port Ludlow Saturday evening.
At about 6:30 p.m., the crew of the Fairhaven-based Coast Guard Cutter Terrapin heard a distress call from a sailboat that was taking on water about 5 miles from shore. The 34-foot sailboat's sails wouldn't come down, and the boat was being battered by waves up to 5 feet high and 40 mph winds.
A father and his two young sons were on board, as well as two other men, and the boat wasn't going to make it to shore.
Cann and Petty Officer 2nd Class Cameron Ostman got into an inflatable Zodiac and headed out to the sailboat. When it was clear that conditions were too poor to tow the boat to shore, the Coast Guard decided to get the people off the boat before the waves took it down.
"You had this one opportunity to do this right," Cann said. "There was nobody else out there for them. It was us and it wasn't going to be anybody else."
Cann had to approach the sailboat 10 different times from three different angles to get close enough so the boys could be transferred safely onto the Zodiac as the waves crashed all around.
"It's really hard when you have those kind of seas and those kinds of winds in contention. Both boats are just moving violently up and down and slamming up against each other," he said. "My biggest fear was that sailboat coming up and coming down on the top of my boat."
The 8-year-old came over first, and Cann had him hold onto a rope and cling to his leg for stability as Ostman helped the boy's 13-year-old brother get onto the boat. The Zodiac then headed back to the Terrapin to drop the kids off before heading back to the sailboat for the adults.
"Those two kids were just troopers," Cann said. "They were so calm, and they just listened to anything you told them and immediately responded to anything you said. That felt great to get those kids back to the boat."
Cann and Ostman then went back for the three adults, who had been working feverishly to keep the boat from tipping. Though the captain was hesitant to leave the sailboat behind, everyone made it to the Zodiac and back to the Coast Guard cutter safely.
After the rescue, the adults were wracked with sea sickness while the boys were wrapped in blankets in the ship's cabin, eating popsicles and watching movies as a crew member took care of them.
Cann described the rescue as one of the most amazing, humbling things he's experienced in his 15 years with the Coast Guard. Once everyone was back on the boat, he and Ostman took a moment to appreciate just how well everything went despite the violent conditions. No one was injured, and the sailboat eventually washed up on a muddy beach.
"It kind of overwhelms you to have something that serious become so successful," he said. "Anything could've changed what happened, but it worked."
Reach Zoe Fraley at 360-756-2803 or firstname.lastname@example.org.