Little Things Loom Big During an Emergency
by Tom Rau

The 35-foot sailboat Bluewater, sits peacefully at its moorings at Torresen Marina, Muskegon. Several days earlier its captain experienced a harrowing overboard plunge into Lake Michigan near Muskegon in four to five foot seas.Posted July 17, 2005 On Watch: Muskegon, Lake Michigan, July 1, 2005. A beachside resident called Coast Guard Station Muskegon on Friday afternoon reporting a sailboat floundering off the beach north of Muskegon Harbor. Jay Mieras, the reporting source, reported that a woman on the sailboat was waving her hands in the air.

The 35-foot sailboat Bluewater, sits peacefully at its moorings at Torresen Marina, Muskegon. Several days earlier its captain experienced a harrowing overboard plunge into Lake Michigan near Muskegon in four to five foot seas.

Within minutes, the Station Muskegon’s 30-foot rescue boat broke the pier head at Muskegon Harbor. Four to five foot seas driven by 20 knot winds greeted the Coast Guard crew as they pounded north towards the sailboat’s reported position.

“When we approached the sailboat, I noticed a horseshoe flotation device trailing off the stern attached to a tether line,” said Mike Tapp, Executive Officer, Station Muskegon. He added: “This was not good, you had that feeling that someone had gone overboard.”

Chief Beatty, coxswain aboard the 30-foot rescue boat approached the sailboat. “A female was hollering that her husband had fallen overboard but she didn’t know where,” said Chief Beatty.

Chief Beatty conducted several quick shoreline searches of the area that yielded negative sightings. The situation was not good: a person in the water and sailboat being quickly driven towards shore, and its sole operator unable to control the craft.

Now what? Do you look for the husband or do you save the woman and the sailboat. Fortunately the situation resolved itself. A “Good Sam” Jim Homan, 61, had spotted the floundering craft from shore and he and a buddy grabbed a two-person kayak and reached the sailboat just as the Coast Guard finished its second search of the shoreline.

Being an experienced sailor, Homan took control of the sailboat allowing the Coast Guard crew to continue the search

But where?

Locating a man in seas glazed over by white wind whipped spray did not look promising for the poor soul in the water. Tapp discovered from Homan that the sailboat carried a hand-held GPS. Homan passed the GPS to Tapp. Chief Beatty commenced searching while Tapp worked the handheld device. After two minutes of punching keys and being bounced about he tapped into the track line the sailboat had followed. “I could see where the straight track line ran askew.” Tapp figured that is where the man went overboard as his wife began tacking to recover him. Tapp placed a cursor marker where the track line ended and bingo the GPS offer the latitude and longitude of where the man had gone overboard.

Chief Beatty passed the coordinates to a Coast Guard helicopter aircrew who had joined the search. Within minutes, the aircrew spotted the man in the water, wearing a bright international-orange life jacket. Meanwhile Chief Beatty had transferred Tapp and Seaman Benjamin Cuddeback over to a Muskegon Sheriff’s boat that had picked up the man along with a Good Sam. Tapp said, “The man was shivering uncontrollably. His lips were blue.”

Tapp and Seaman Cuddeback removed his wet clothing and applied their own body warmth by direct body-to-body contact with the man as the sheriff boat raced to the Coast Guard moorings and an awaiting ambulance.

Boat Smart Brief: Richard Coan, age 67, was released the following afternoon from Muskegon’s Hackley Hospital. His core body temperature when admitted was 86 degrees. There is no doubt that the life jacket saved his life. He had been in the 61 degree water for nearly two hours. He later told me the reason he wore the life jacket is because his wife, Robin, insisted on it. God bless her.

He told me he had moved forward on the deck to adjust the main sail and the boom swung over and bumped him backwards and over the handrails. His wife started the engine, but its gears wouldn’t engage. Mr. Coan said that when he departed White Lake Harbor, a turnbuckle device on the gear linkage had fallen off and thus he couldn’t engage the gears.

Mrs. Coan made several attempts to recover her husband, but the sailboat drifted away. She had tossed over the horseshoe life ring but failed to untie it from the boat. She couldn’t luff the main sail to take out the wind because it would require leaving the tiller and going forward to the foot of the mast to release the sail. It’s the same reason she didn’t call for help over the marine radio, again fearful of leaving the tiller and placing the 35-foot, six-ton Erickson sailboat broadside to the wind and a possible knockdown. In dire straights, she sailed for shore hoping to attract attention, which she did.

Mr. Coan admitted it was the little things that nailed them: when the gear linkage device fell off he should’ve returned to White Lake and repaired it in calm water. He had recently switched the boom sheets on the main from control from the tiller to the foot of the main, which required leaving the tiller to luff the main sail. “Had I thought this through, I would not have changed the boom sheets,” said Mr. Coan.

As for the life jacket, I advised him to purchase a signal mirror and whistle, a day and night flare, and a strobe light. Twice the helicopter had passed nearby but failed to see him in the wind swept sea. Mr. Coan admits that it’s the little things that loomed big when the unexpected visited. Thanks to a life jacket the little things didn’t add up to the final tally.

A Related Concern
In another matter that relates indirectly to the above case, the Coast Guard along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan has experienced a rash of unmanned boats adrift. During one case, the Coast Guard spent seven hours tracking down the owner. Coast Guard officials urge boaters to place permanent I.D. markings on these small watercraft and secure them to a fixed object. How does this relate indirectly to the life-saving case? Coast Guard resources could’ve been elsewhere tracking down an adrift derelict and not immediately available when time was of the essence searching for Mr. Coan. As stated: it’s the little things.

In recognition to Rescue Responders during this life-saving rescue:
CG304445 Crew (initial response for PIW)
BMC Michael Beatty
BM1 Michael Tapp
BM1 Scott Lenz
BM3 Salvador Nunez
SN Benjamin Cuddeback
**(BM1 Tapp & SN Cuddeback later transferred to MC-872 and assisted Mr. Coan as a team)
Muskegon County Boat 872 (first county boat O/S)
Officer Dave Vanderlaan
Muskegon County Boat 875 (second County Boat O/S)
Officer Raymond Lundeen
Officer Dan Stout Jr.
CG304445 Crew (second sortie to escort sailing vsl with Mrs. Coan and Mr. Homan)
BMC Michael Beatty
BM1 Scott Lenz
BM3 Salvador Nunez
EM3 Chance Rupe
SN Christopher Rickett
Crewmembers I recommend for inclusion: They made ready CG49412 and CG234393 to assist if needed and stood by the unit. They also acted as line handlers and or helped transfer the PIW from the County boat to shore.
BM1 William Hosford
MK1 Robin Yoder
BM2 Brian Fiscus
EM3 Chance Rupe: Mbr. recalled off liberty
MK3 Zachary Michaud: Mbr. recalled off liberty
The crew of CG Rescue 6508
The Group Grand Haven Comms Watch.

Tom Rau is a long-time Coast Guard rescue responder and syndicated boating safety columnist.

Look for his book, Boat Smart Chronicles, a shocking expose on recreational boating — reads like a great ship’s log spanning over two decades. It’s available to order at:,,, or through local bookstores.



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