By Jeanne McKinney
In 1983, a Coast Guard helicopter made its way to the capsized Marine Electric vessel off the coast of Virginia. When they arrived, they found survivors scattered around in the near-freezing water. After multiple attempts to lower the rescue basket directly where the crew members were struggling to survive in the water, time after time they were too hypothermic and weak to climb in. Even with a Navy helicopter assist, only three were rescued out of 34. Later, in 1991, the fishing vessel Dora H. radioed a Mayday and was sinking in the icy waters 220 miles off Kodiak, Alaska. This time, a Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer was flying out with his helicopter crew.
A Banning native, Chief Warrant Officer Gary L. Strebe, remembers not wanting to go to Kodiak, Alaska. He’d planned to come to San Diego, do four years with the Coast Guard and get out and go to college. He’d already completed boot camp in Cape May, N.J., and a rigorous 18-week Aviation Survival Technician school in Elizabeth City, N.C., where Strebe was trained to maintain aircrew and aircraft survival equipment. In addition, he was trained for his aircrew position as a Rescue Swimmer.
The Rescue Swimmer School opportunity was a direct result of the Marine Electric tragedy, when Congress mandated the creation of a Rescue Swimmer program. As a former high-school lifeguard and competitive swimmer, Strebe was over-confident in his abilities at first. But his instructors put the pressure on to find even greater strength, endurance, and mental acuity than he knew he had, replicating “real world” situations. He had to remind himself that “it’s a mental game that is not going to kill you, at least not purposefully.”
The first year and half in Kodiak, Strebe was learning his technician trade. When the “Halibut Opener” came up, the crew of the Dora H., like others, had 24 hours to catch as many fish as possible, many overloading their boats. Strebe was the duty Rescue Swimmer when their mayday came in. He describes the scene: “It was 70-knot winds. Seas were anywhere from 25-35 feet tall. We located a life raft with our night vision goggles. We knew somebody was in the raft; we weren’t sure how many.
“They lowered me in the water and I was clearing out of the rescue strap when a swell dropped out from underneath me and I fell 10 feet. That ripped off my mask and snorkel, so I had to continue the rescue with no protection from the rotor wash and salt water in my face and eyes.”
Strebe started swimming, wearing a 30-pound hoisting harness, trying to keep the raft in sight over walls of water. Above, the pilot was tiring, holding the H-3 helicopter in a hover, while getting buffeted about by powerful winds. When Strebe arrived, luckily all four [crew] were in the raft. “I grabbed the one with a torn dry suit and put him in the water. They lowered the basket and I put him in. It took about 15 minutes per hoist.”
Ever looming was the “Bingo” moment when the helicopter has to turn back because of being low on fuel. Gary had been in the 32-degree water for more than 50 minutes, and did not want to be left behind. So, he clipped himself to the basket holding the last fisherman and went up with him. “It’s teamwork. You can’t do the mission if you can’t trust the guy covering your back.”
Semper Paratus — “Always ready” — is the Coast Guard motto. With over 95,000 miles of U.S. coastlines and vast oceans and seas, the stewardship is massive. CWO Strebe explains the Coast Guard is the oldest sea-going service, started in 1790 to enforce tariff and trade laws to prevent smuggling. Today, it’s a unique branch of the military with law enforcement authority — deployed daily for maritime security, safety and environmental protection.
Preparedness has many faces in the Coast Guard. Strebe’s current job is Senior Marine Inspector. He became qualified through more schooling. He suggests, “Think of a large vessel. The hull inspectors check the navigation, the crew competency, life and fire safety – all the upper deck hull equipment. The machinery inspectors check the propulsion machinery, auxiliary equipment and emergency generators.” Gary is qualified to do both hull and machinery inspections.
The sinking of the Titanic spawned the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Strebe reports, “It’s a body of sea-going nations that agree upon international regulations and laws for safety of life at sea (SOLAS). When foreign ships come here, we inspect them to SOLAS standards, along with our own U.S. rules and regulations. If they have deficiencies, we’ll write them up and contact their flag nation to correct it.”
“Strict Enforcer” is the U.S. Coast Guard’s global reputation. Recently, the media reported a remark made by a maritime industry insider after a recent cruise line disaster: “Make sure you’re going on a ship that makes stops in the U.S., because then you know the U.S. Coast Guard is going aboard to inspect it.”
Gary says, “Foreign ships have to notify us of their arrival 96 hours ahead of time. U.S. Customs checks the crew for proper licensing. We look at their cargo, where they’ve been and do spot inspections. If a lifeboat doesn’t start up or a pump on board doesn’t work or any other red flag comes up, we’re going to hold them here until it works.”
Even though Strebe and his team are the safety guys, holding ship and boat owners to the rod can be frustrating. He says, “Sometimes it’s hard being the regulator. We take great pains to be fair, and don’t want to run people out of business. I take my job seriously because if their boat sinks, the National Transportation and Safety Board and everyone else are looking at me for answers. They love us when we save them, but don’t like us when we cite them.”
Whether its rescues or inspections, Strebe’s all about the Coast Guard ethos to protect, defend, save, and be a shield. He agrees the many proud who serve the Coast Guard are unsung heroes.
Strebe is happily married with a daughter and a son — thankful for what the Coast Guard has provided him and his family. “I’ve been able to complete my education up through a master’s degree. I’ve been to some great places and worked with some outstanding people. We’re all here to help.”
For helping the crew of Dora H. out of the frigid Alaskan waters, Strebe won eight different awards for bravery and heroism. Once in the helicopter, he wrapped the tired and hypothermic fishermen in blankets the best he could. Exhausted, cold, and tired he passed out for the trip home. Thanks to men like Chief Warrant Officer Strebe, people are rescued that would otherwise be lost and safety of life at sea keeps in check.