In the spring of 1990, when my ship the USS Morrison FFG 13 was in the Caribbean participating in anti-drug operations off Central America, a storm comes up just after sundown. Not a big one but maybe 20 knot winds and swells of 10 to 15 feet. We received a distress call from a Dominican freighter floundering some 100 miles off the coast.
The ship immediately changed course and headed to their location. We were maybe 30 miles or so away when we go to full speed. Waves of that height are nothing for a Frigate but for a small loaded down freighter, it can be deadly.
By the time we were within 10 miles the radio signal from them reported that they were abandoning ship and the crew of 10 were crammed into a rubber life raft. Now it was getting serious! We kept trying to raise them again on the radio but no answer. In minutes we were at the last known location. One of the lookouts said he thought he saw something but it was pitch black with very low visibility.
The Captain called to muster 2 rescue teams on the fantail (back of the ship). We were going to launch 2 RIB boats (rubber inflated boat) for a search and rescue. Each boat needed a Signalman on board for communication in case of radio failure. I was the senior Signalman on board and could have sent one of my guys but hey, I didn’t want to miss out on this! So I asked for a volunteer for one boat and then volunteered myself for the second one. Each boat had 4 sailors on board. A Coxswain (driver), boat captain, engineer and a signalman.
Once the RIB boats were in the water and started searching, the reality of the wave height was staggering! When you’re on the Signal Bridge of a Frigate, 10 to 15 foot waves aren't that big a deal. When you are on a 20 foot RIB setting a foot off the water, it is’ a VERY BIG DEAL! The Coxswain would shout out “here we go boys” and up we would go over the face of the wave and down we would go on the other side! Up and over, up and over!
About 20 minutes into this sleigh ride the other RIB radioed they had located the life boat and everyone was safe! The Signalman started flashing his light so we could find their location. We caught up with them about 100 yards away. They had already moved the crew to their boat and after a brief discussion they took off back to the ship. We were left to secure the life boat. Remember, I volunteered for this!
This thing was heavy and with one guy driving the boat, that left only 3 of us trying to keep it alongside. Now when the waves would hit, the raft would raise and then flop over the side of our boat! We go forward a few feet and then smash, a big swell would hit us broadside and over it would come again! One of those broadside hits resulted in me getting my hands smashed and getting smacked in the face with a strap from the raft and it stung!
After about 15 minutes the boat captain shouted, f**k this! He took out his knife and started stabbing holes in the side which of course deflated the raft. Now we were still wet but at least we weren’t getting our knuckles smashed every 3 minutes!
Finally we made it back to the ship. Secured from rescue detail and stowed everything away. The Dominicans were being treated and supplied with fresh clothes and hot food. I walked into my berthing soaking wet, with bleeding knuckles and a nice inch long gash in my cheek! I immediately reaffirmed that old Navy saying!