By Anne Christnovich
When there are rough waters or bad storms, most people keep their feet firmly on shore.
For the 42 volunteers of the Beaufort Water Search and Rescue team, their reaction is opposite: bad weather means they’re prepared to face the Mother Nature’s wrath at any moment.
The team is dispatched to respond to all kinds of water-related troubles. Most of the time, they’re dispatched to help with minor problems — to bring fuel to or tow stranded boaters, or to retrieve the occasional lost kayaker.
Other times, their presence is the difference between life and death.
Dick Jennings, the group’s elected Skipper, has volunteered with the team for eight years and is a lifelong resident of Beaufort County. He also worked with the U.S. Coast Guard before joining the search and rescue team. From experience, he’s learned to never label any call as “routine.”
“Every rescue is different,” Jennings said. “You don’t always know where you’re going, or what you’re facing. We have to improvise.”
Jennings laughed as he retold one of his favorite water rescue stories. A Marine who’d just returned from deployment in Iraq rented a boat with his wife and got lost on the Combahee River just as the sun went down.
The Marine lit a signal fire to help rescuers find them, but Jennings said it attracted more attention than the couple bargained for.
“The problem is, gators are attracted to warmth,” he said laughing. “By the time we got there, they were surrounded by them … I had no idea what to say, so I told them to get in the boat and crouch down out of sight.”
The volunteer who rescued them hooked an anchor to their boat and towed them to safety, Jennings said.
While some of their calls result in funny stories, the team also has to grapple with tragedy.
Most recently, on a cold, windy December evening, a shrimp boat carrying two men capsized on the Broad River. Temperatures were in the 40s with winds between 30 and 40 miles per hour.
The search and rescue team was able to find and save one man, who was barely conscious and suffering from hypothermia.
The other lost consciousness and died from the cold and drown before responders could arrive.
“No one should have been on the water that day,” Jennings said, shaking his head. “(The survivor) was almost gone by the time we reached him. He was in bad shape.”
The group usually works with the U.S. Coast Guard, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources and the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office.
“We react to any type of situation on the water,” Jennings said. “We are the first responders.”
Jennings said dialing 911 is the best thing for a distressed boater, swimmer or water enthusiast to do. It’s the fastest and most effective way for the water search and rescue team to get dispatched, he said.
The rescuers cover water emergencies from the northern end of Hilton Head Island to as far west as Edisto and Otter Island, just north of Beaufort County and about 3 miles out to sea.
In addition to the daring-do attitudes of the men and women on the team, the group does so without pay or compensation. They often use their own boats and buy equipment out of their own pockets. Among them, they have 15 boats ranging from 17 feet to 70 feet and put in about 2,000 volunteer hours each year, Jennings said. Some of the vessels were donated but most belong to the volunteers.
“The majority volunteer because they love the water and they want to help,” Jennings said. “We operate under the good Samaritan law.”
Beaufort Water Search and Rescue was founded in 1975 through an initiative from concerned citizens. Before then, the nearest Coast Guard stations were in Charleston and on Tybee Island. If there was an emergency on the water near Beaufort County, it could take as long as two hours for responders to arrive.
Most members have been there for 10 years or less but three volunteers — Gary Bright, Nick Russell and Dole Clifton — have been with the team for about 30 years, Jennings said. When they aren’t training or responding to calls, they work a myriad of day jobs including mechanics, doctors, lawyers, chiropractors and computer repairmen.
“Some of our guys will get back from a rescue at three or four in the morning and have to go to work a few hours later,” Jennings said. “If there’s a storm during the summer at 2 a.m., you can bet we’re probably out there.”
The group is a registered nonprofit and co-hosts “The Beaufort Water Search and Rescue and Fripp Island Sea Rescue Saint patty’s Golf Tournament” for a fundraiser each year. This year, the event will be held on at 9 a.m. Saturday, March 23 at the Ocean Creek Golf Course on Fripp Island. Parties of four can participate for $75 per player. Tickets include cart, range balls, door prizes and lunch and can be bought on the day of the event. For questions, contact Ted Michals at 843-838-5788.