By Michael L. Zapawa


For one day I was a hero, even if it was only to two people, whom I will never meet.................

This is about the day I saved two people from an unforgiving ocean. I am a radioman in the United States Coast Guard, I often help coordinate Search and Rescue efforts, but this one was different. I firmly believe if I hadn't been on watch that late April day, these two people would have died.

It was around 1 a.m., and we had 10 footers offshore. The Sailing vessel LOUIS JAEANNE was returning to Montreal from Palm Beach Florida. They had never experienced seas like this before. They were scared and they were seasick. Meanwhile I sat in my Warm office 400 miles away.

I heard a broken call on channel 16, "Coast .........Coast ..........Guard. ..........Mayday..........." I responded but they couldn't hear me.


The Coast Guard Group in Atlantic Beach NC established communications. The two people on board were returning home on their new 45 foot sailing vessel. They were concerned, and wanted the Coast Guard to know where they were. I could only hear bits and pieces of this conversation.. The LOUIS JAEANNE was placed on a communications schedule and the CG Group in Atlantic beach would call every hour.

As the night progressed the transmissions became clearer.

At 4:48 a.m., I established communications. I began to fill out my Distress Sheets, but when I asked the Captain what the nature of distress was, she only responded "all clear"

I repeated myself several times getting the same response. I threw my hands up! "If I can't figure out what's wrong, then how can we help them?" I remembered they were headed toward Montreal.

Something clicked in my head....."Sailing Vessel LOUIS JAEANNE, this is Coast Guard Group Charleston.. Captain what is your nationality over?"......

"Canadian ............ Canadian....." I felt a rush of adrenaline...I WAS RIGHT! They couldn't tell me what was happening because they couldn't understand what I was asking...

"Sailing vessel LOUIS JAEANNE, this is Coast Guard Group Charleston, Captain what is your native Language over?"

"Coast Guard .......French Over"

I now knew what I had to do, I found the telephone number for a Coast Guard station in Maine, and called.

"Coast Guard Group South West Harbor how may I help you."

"Hey! this is Petty Officer Zapawa down in Group Charleston South Carolina ...I need the number for a Canadian Coast Guard unit."

"Is Fundy Bay OK?"


"Yeah sure.....anything...." I jotted down the telephone number, hung up and called the Royal Canadian Coast Guard in the Bay of Fundy.

A cheerful man answered the telephone in a accent right out of the movie Fargo "Fundy Coast Guard Radio, Mike Gilbert speaking........"

Hi my name is Petty Officer Zapawa from United States Coast Guard Group Charleston South Carolina, I've got a Canadian National who doesn't speak very good English, I was hoping you could translate for me?


My God! I felt another adrenaline rush, I pulled out the manual to the new console we had received a couple of days earlier, ...... phone patch........ I read the directions, plugged in the phone and to my amazement, IT WORKED!

"Fundy Coast Guard this is Group Charleston how do you read Over........"

"Loud and clear Over ........."

"Fundy Bay the name of the vessel is LOUIS JAEANNE Over ..."

"Group Charleston Roger ."

My Canadian counterpart began to speak French over the Radio, It was the climax of my efforts I felt a wave of emotions erupt within me, My body felt weak. I fought these new sensations, I wasn't out of the woods yet. But I had done it I had connected them together with a telephone and a radio. After a five minute exchange finally it way my turn again"

"Group Charleston this is Fundy Bay......"

"Fundy Bay this is Group Charleston, Go Ahead...."

"Charleston this is Fundy Bay Roger, they're taking on water through the window, and being pushed back on a reciprocal course, they are both sea sick, and this is their first trip on the vessel."

"Fundy Bay this is Group Roger.." My supervisor towering over me, told me to ask if they wanted to be taken off by helicopter

"Fundy Bay this is Group Charleston, ask the captain if he wants to be taken off by Helicopter..."

Charleston this is Fundy Bay Roger Out." Another Barrage of French occurred. I couldn't understand a word, but I knew my message was getting across, after a very long minute...."..Group Charleston this is Fundy bay they want to be taken off by helicopter...."

Fundy bay this is Group Charleston Roger.." The wheels were turning now, four men in a small Air Facility southwest of where I now sat were jumping out of bed and putting on gear as fast as they could, a couple of minutes passed .....

"Group Charleston Group Charleston this is Coast Guard Rescue Copter 6550 over........"

"Rescue Copter 6550 this is Group over....."

"Roger Group we're Airborne heading toward the Rescue case over......"

"Rescue Copter 6550 be advised the Subject Vessel does not speak English, we currently have a phone patch with the Royal Canadian Coast Guard, Fundy Bay, Request you pass any Information you need to obtain from the Vessel to them over......"

Group this is Rescue 6550 Roger Out."

I had done it! The right people were now in the right positions. The final Pieces were coming together.

Well It went like clock work after that, The two Canadian were taken off the vessel and flown to Myrtle Beach. I ended the phone patch with Fundy Bay thanking him for his service.

I looked at the clock it was after 8 a.m. now, I felt as if I had lived a lifetime. I called my wife, and let her know why I was leaving for home two hours later then usual.

I started to collect my things and proceed down stairs when I was greeted by my supervisors. Their eyes and smiles said what I wanted to hear, It was over.

I walked down the stairs got in the car and started for home, As the distance and time grew from where I was, my body began to remind me that I had been awake for the last 17 hours. The adrenaline wore off, I felt weak again, I became awash in emotions. I wanted to yell, "yes yes yes yes!" I wanted to cry, I wanted to thank God for putting me in the position to help someone other then myself, I wanted to retire, I wanted work forever, I felt so many contradictory emotions and impulses at once. I had done it! I had saved those people from the sea. For one day I was a hero, even if it was only to two people, whom I will never meet. I get it now, I understand the whys and the whos, if even for a fleeting moment. ..........Thank you God for the chance to become one of your most noble creations..... A United States Coastguardsman.

Michael L. Zapawa is Telecommunications Specialist 2nd class stationed at the United States Coast Guard Group Charleston South Carolina.


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