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On Northern Neck, all-volunteer Smith Point Sea Rescue answers the call for boaters in trouble | Associated Press

On Northern Neck, all-volunteer Smith Point Sea Rescue answers the call for boaters in trouble | Associated Press

REEDVILLE, Va. (AP) — The emergency call came in shortly before 2 p.m. on April 1, and it was far from a joke: a boat was sinking in the chilly Chesapeake Bay with eight people aboard.

“I was sitting on my boat, out at the dock, and as soon as I heard there was a boat with eight people taking on water, I literally ran down my dock and across the yard, hopped in the truck and headed this way,” said Robert Gwaltney, sitting in the boathouse on Cockrell Creek, across from downtown Reedville and near the mouth of the Great Wicomico River, where Smith Point Sea Rescue keeps two of its rescue boats. Gwaltney is a “duty captain” with the all-volunteer organization.

“I carry a radio around with me all the time, and Robert does, too,” said Bill Turville, another duty captain, noting that they keep up with emergency calls from Northumberland County Sheriff’s Department dispatchers. “When I heard the call, I called Robert immediately, and I said, ‘Are you going?’ He said, ‘I’m on my way.’ So, I followed right behind him.”

Other members of Smith Point Sea Rescue heard the radio chatter, too, and headed for the boathouse. Once their crew numbered four, they set out on Rescue 1, a 42-foot deadrise designed to be an all-weather fishing boat, into the Chesapeake Bay; late arrivals stood by for further instructions.

It was a blustery day on the bay, with a bad storm expected later. By the time Rescue 1 reached the scene, the 50-foot boat — which had been headed from Virginia Beach toward New Jersey — had sunk and the eight people were floating in the cold water, all in life jackets and tethered together. Turville estimated the people had been in the 49-degree water for more than 40 minutes. The crew quickly pulled the eight aboard the boat and hurriedly began trying to warm them.

The Coast Guard and Virginia Marine Police also responded to the call, but Smith Point Sea Rescue arrived at the scene first. The Coast Guard boat accompanied Smith Point Sea Rescue to Ingram Bay Marina, while the marine police provided additional blankets for the survivors and stayed behind to clean up debris in the water before following.

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Rescue 1 delivered the eight people to Ingram Bay Marina, where Northumberland County Rescue Squad and Emergency Medical Services were waiting. Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources also assisted.

It was a team effort, but it was Smith Point Sea Rescue, a grassroots organization largely made up of retirees, that led the way.

All eight were treated — one was suffering from hypothermia — and all declined transport to Rappahannock General Hospital. If they had spent much longer in the chilly water, the outcome could have been far different.

“There’s no doubt about that at all,” said Northumberland Sheriff John A. Beauchamp, when asked if Smith Point Sea Rescue’s fast response had saved the boaters’ lives. He noted “how fortunate we are being a waterfront community” to have such a group in the area.

“The vast number of boaters just pass by Northumberland and don’t even know Smith Point Sea Rescue exists. Until they need them.”

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Smith Point Sea Rescue is the only volunteer rescue unit on the Chesapeake Bay, and organization leaders believe they are one of only two such organizations on the East Coast. The group has been serving the community for almost 50 years — towing boaters who have broken down or become grounded in shallow waters or delivering fuel to those who have run out. They also tend to more serious matters, such as capsized boats or people who have fallen overboard and have been carried away by the current.

Though Smith Point Sea Rescue is always on call, there are often long gaps between calls, said Buddy Sylvia, who has been involved with the organization for 29 years and is the group’s senior captain. The group generally responds to an average of 60 to 65 calls a year, he said.

The organization was founded in 1974, as part of a community response to a near-tragic incident when a father and his two young children were rescued after spending an autumn night hanging onto the bow of their sunken boat near Reedville.

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“Based on that, the locals said, ‘We’ve got to protect each other,’” said Sylvia, 84, a Richmond native who moved to the Northern Neck in 1994 after retiring from federal government.

A nonprofit organization was formed and started enlisting volunteers, who kept in touch in those days by CB radio. They have advanced now to VHF radios and cell phones, and the group has evolved into a combination of rescue squad on the water and the marine version of AAA roadside assistance.

Now, as then, there are other entities that respond to emergencies on the water — the Coast Guard (the nearest station is at Milford Haven in Mathews County), Virginia Marine Police, Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources and for-profit businesses such as TowBoatUS — but they are not always “as readily available by boat as Smith Point Sea Rescue,” said Beauchamp, the Northumberland sheriff.

Smith Point Sea Rescue fills in the gaps, and keeps boats in two locations — Reedville and another near Lottsburg, on the northern edge of the county, to handle calls on the upper Potomac.

“They respond in the way that fire and rescue do,” Beauchamp said.

But without any government funding.

“We are strictly good Samaritans,” Sylvia said.

Remaining financially afloat is always a challenge for the organization. It relies on donations from local residents and boaters and proceeds from an annual oyster roast (which restarted this year after a COVID-19 hiatus), as well as grants from foundations and trust funds. It recently ordered a new 43-foot boat to add to its rescue fleet. Sylvia plans for it to be operating in time for the organization’s 50th anniversary next year.

Smith Point Sea Rescue has a roster of about 40 volunteers, none paid, most retired, because they have the time necessary to devote to the organization. Not only that, said Sylvia, volunteers on the rotating weekly “watch” lists need to live within 15 or 20 minutes of the boats in order to be useful on emergency calls.

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The group is always seeking new members.

It helps immensely for volunteers to be familiar, not only with the bay, but also with the numerous rivers and creeks that define the edge of this end of the Northern Neck as Northumberland County has more than 500 miles of shoreline.

Turville and Gwaltney became involved with Smith Point Sea Rescue in the last decade. Turville, 74, a retired Navy pilot, was a weekend resident in the Reedville area for a number of years before retiring and moving there full-time in 2013. Beyond his Navy experience, he was a recreational boater and knew of Smith Point Sea Rescue. When he had the time, he joined.

“You need something to keep yourself busy (in retirement), and we enjoy boating, and we enjoy helping people,” Turville said.

Similarly, Gwaltney, 69, who owned a home inspection business in Northern Virginia, is also boater who has had a home on the Northern Neck since 2004.

“It was always a comfort to me to know (Smith Point Sea Rescue) was available if I got into trouble,” said Gwaltney, who has lived full-time in the Northern Neck since 2017. “So, when the time came that I was fully retired and had the time to find something to do to stay out of trouble, this was a good fit.

“It’s a good way to give back. It’s a niche that nobody was filling here.”

  • June 25, 2023

On Northern Neck, all-volunteer Smith Point Sea Rescue answers the call for boaters in trouble | Associated Press

On Northern Neck, all-volunteer Smith Point Sea Rescue answers the call for boaters in trouble | Associated Press

REEDVILLE, Va. (AP) — The emergency call came in shortly before 2 p.m. on April 1, and it was far from a joke: a boat was sinking in the chilly Chesapeake Bay with eight people aboard.

“I was sitting on my boat, out at the dock, and as soon as I heard there was a boat with eight people taking on water, I literally ran down my dock and across the yard, hopped in the truck and headed this way,” said Robert Gwaltney, sitting in the boathouse on Cockrell Creek, across from downtown Reedville and near the mouth of the Great Wicomico River, where Smith Point Sea Rescue keeps two of its rescue boats. Gwaltney is a “duty captain” with the all-volunteer organization.

“I carry a radio around with me all the time, and Robert does, too,” said Bill Turville, another duty captain, noting that they keep up with emergency calls from Northumberland County Sheriff’s Department dispatchers. “When I heard the call, I called Robert immediately, and I said, ‘Are you going?’ He said, ‘I’m on my way.’ So, I followed right behind him.”

Other members of Smith Point Sea Rescue heard the radio chatter, too, and headed for the boathouse. Once their crew numbered four, they set out on Rescue 1, a 42-foot deadrise designed to be an all-weather fishing boat, into the Chesapeake Bay; late arrivals stood by for further instructions.

It was a blustery day on the bay, with a bad storm expected later. By the time Rescue 1 reached the scene, the 50-foot boat — which had been headed from Virginia Beach toward New Jersey — had sunk and the eight people were floating in the cold water, all in life jackets and tethered together. Turville estimated the people had been in the 49-degree water for more than 40 minutes. The crew quickly pulled the eight aboard the boat and hurriedly began trying to warm them.

The Coast Guard and Virginia Marine Police also responded to the call, but Smith Point Sea Rescue arrived at the scene first. The Coast Guard boat accompanied Smith Point Sea Rescue to Ingram Bay Marina, while the marine police provided additional blankets for the survivors and stayed behind to clean up debris in the water before following.

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Rescue 1 delivered the eight people to Ingram Bay Marina, where Northumberland County Rescue Squad and Emergency Medical Services were waiting. Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources also assisted.

It was a team effort, but it was Smith Point Sea Rescue, a grassroots organization largely made up of retirees, that led the way.

All eight were treated — one was suffering from hypothermia — and all declined transport to Rappahannock General Hospital. If they had spent much longer in the chilly water, the outcome could have been far different.

“There’s no doubt about that at all,” said Northumberland Sheriff John A. Beauchamp, when asked if Smith Point Sea Rescue’s fast response had saved the boaters’ lives. He noted “how fortunate we are being a waterfront community” to have such a group in the area.

“The vast number of boaters just pass by Northumberland and don’t even know Smith Point Sea Rescue exists. Until they need them.”

(asterisk)(asterisk)(asterisk)

Smith Point Sea Rescue is the only volunteer rescue unit on the Chesapeake Bay, and organization leaders believe they are one of only two such organizations on the East Coast. The group has been serving the community for almost 50 years — towing boaters who have broken down or become grounded in shallow waters or delivering fuel to those who have run out. They also tend to more serious matters, such as capsized boats or people who have fallen overboard and have been carried away by the current.

Though Smith Point Sea Rescue is always on call, there are often long gaps between calls, said Buddy Sylvia, who has been involved with the organization for 29 years and is the group’s senior captain. The group generally responds to an average of 60 to 65 calls a year, he said.

The organization was founded in 1974, as part of a community response to a near-tragic incident when a father and his two young children were rescued after spending an autumn night hanging onto the bow of their sunken boat near Reedville.

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“Based on that, the locals said, ‘We’ve got to protect each other,’” said Sylvia, 84, a Richmond native who moved to the Northern Neck in 1994 after retiring from federal government.

A nonprofit organization was formed and started enlisting volunteers, who kept in touch in those days by CB radio. They have advanced now to VHF radios and cell phones, and the group has evolved into a combination of rescue squad on the water and the marine version of AAA roadside assistance.

Now, as then, there are other entities that respond to emergencies on the water — the Coast Guard (the nearest station is at Milford Haven in Mathews County), Virginia Marine Police, Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources and for-profit businesses such as TowBoatUS — but they are not always “as readily available by boat as Smith Point Sea Rescue,” said Beauchamp, the Northumberland sheriff.

Smith Point Sea Rescue fills in the gaps, and keeps boats in two locations — Reedville and another near Lottsburg, on the northern edge of the county, to handle calls on the upper Potomac.

“They respond in the way that fire and rescue do,” Beauchamp said.

But without any government funding.

“We are strictly good Samaritans,” Sylvia said.

Remaining financially afloat is always a challenge for the organization. It relies on donations from local residents and boaters and proceeds from an annual oyster roast (which restarted this year after a COVID-19 hiatus), as well as grants from foundations and trust funds. It recently ordered a new 43-foot boat to add to its rescue fleet. Sylvia plans for it to be operating in time for the organization’s 50th anniversary next year.

Smith Point Sea Rescue has a roster of about 40 volunteers, none paid, most retired, because they have the time necessary to devote to the organization. Not only that, said Sylvia, volunteers on the rotating weekly “watch” lists need to live within 15 or 20 minutes of the boats in order to be useful on emergency calls.

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The group is always seeking new members.

It helps immensely for volunteers to be familiar, not only with the bay, but also with the numerous rivers and creeks that define the edge of this end of the Northern Neck as Northumberland County has more than 500 miles of shoreline.

Turville and Gwaltney became involved with Smith Point Sea Rescue in the last decade. Turville, 74, a retired Navy pilot, was a weekend resident in the Reedville area for a number of years before retiring and moving there full-time in 2013. Beyond his Navy experience, he was a recreational boater and knew of Smith Point Sea Rescue. When he had the time, he joined.

“You need something to keep yourself busy (in retirement), and we enjoy boating, and we enjoy helping people,” Turville said.

Similarly, Gwaltney, 69, who owned a home inspection business in Northern Virginia, is also boater who has had a home on the Northern Neck since 2004.

“It was always a comfort to me to know (Smith Point Sea Rescue) was available if I got into trouble,” said Gwaltney, who has lived full-time in the Northern Neck since 2017. “So, when the time came that I was fully retired and had the time to find something to do to stay out of trouble, this was a good fit.

“It’s a good way to give back. It’s a niche that nobody was filling here.”

  • June 25, 2023