Award-winning rescuer reunited with men he saved

An American rescue swimmer who saved four men from a sinking ocean-going rowing boat was reunited with three of the people he rescued in an emotional ceremony at IMO Headquarters in London last week.

Aviation Survival Technician Christopher Leon of the United States Coast Guard received the IMO Award for Exceptional Bravery at Sea for his part in the dramatic rescue of four ocean racers from the Pacific Ocean.

He was thanked in person by grateful rescuees Sam Collins, Fraser Hart and James Wright, all from the United Kingdom, during the award ceremony.

The three rowers, along with Colin Parker from New Zealand, had been taking part in the Great Pacific Race in June 2014 when their four-man boat Britannia 4 began sinking in severe conditions.

The race support vessel had been unable to reach the stricken rowing boat and its crew due to 30 knot winds and 15 to 20-foot waves.

The rowers owe their lives to the efforts of rescue swimmer AST Leon, who had been lowered to the sea to assist them, and to the successful hoists performed by the helicopter crew in conditions compounded by darkness, lack of visual cues and horizon and breaking waves.

Speaking at the ceremony, Leon said he was pleased to meet the rescuees for the first time since the fateful night, and in entirely different circumstances.

He said he was honoured and humbled to be receiving the award and thanked his fellow crew members, who had flown the helicopter through gale force winds to winch him down to the rowers in the stormy seas below and who had performed a series of demanding recovery hoists to initially rescue three of the men.

When fuel levels on the helicopter became dangerously low and it had to leave the scene to refuel, Leon remained with the fourth rower Hart, huddled in the tiny bow portion of the swamped vessel that remained above water.

The two men protected each other from the breaking waves and freezing temperatures.

Finally, the helicopter was able to return through the stormy night and hoist the two men to safety.

“I would especially like to thank the crew of the helicopter, Lieutenant Scott Black, Lieutenant Jesse C Keyser and flight mechanic Michael Spraggins, because nothing I do, can be done without them; and everything we do is a team effort – especially for this case,” Leon said.

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