Captain Charles Gassert Jr. shares this story of a recent rescue he played a part in on the South River, using his handheld VHF radio.

Background: I live on the South River in Beards Creek just around the corner from Mike’s Crab House. We recently had a couple on a Jet Ski lose their lives and a few other people drown down river off Edgewater. It had been a terrible couple of weeks on the Bay in general with significant loss of life.

VHF radio
Getting involved can make a difference.

I was a lifeguard in high school, and as a licensed captain I usually take notice of things going on in the water behind our house. There are multiple Jet Ski rentals and boats towing children behind their boats. All good fun, but it gets me focused on the water when sitting on our deck. I work for Clarks Landing Marina delivering new boats and providing new boat training when not working for the government as a program manager.

The Situation: On July 14 while sitting on my deck, I noticed a woman in the water going downriver with the current. She had cleared the point and was fully in the current, was not waiving her hands, and seemed in distress. I grabbed my binoculars and started watching her thinking she may be swimming and was waiting for her to turn back to shore. I was discussing this with my wife when I realized she was really in trouble and was drowning. At that point I grabbed my handheld VHF and on channel 16, started the “may-day, may-day, may-day” call to the Coast Guard. I relayed her position, my name, where I lived, and stressed that she was probably drowning in the river. I did not have access to my boats since they are being repaired for the moment, so I felt helpless. 

Press the Rescue: At this point I decided to press the rescue from my dock with my handheld VHF. I continued to report her position with updated “mayday” calls to any vessel in the South River to speed up her rescue. Four boats had passed her in the river already. The situation was starting to get desperate. I knew it would have taken more time for the rescue boats to get on scene. She was already in the water about six minutes from the time I had first seen her. 

VHF radio
The author noticed a woman in trouble in the river and called a may-day on his handheld VHF radio.

Just in time: A fifth boat had been monitoring its VHF radio and started to respond to my calls, and I coordinated her rescue with that boat. They picked her up, but were unsure of what to do next, so I directed the boat to my dock to offload the person for immediate medical support. At this time my wife Maggie, who is an RN, had called 911 and was directing emergency response to the house, so they were just behind the docking. At about this time the emergency boats had started showing up and were on standby as the team managed her healthcare response. 

The woman recovered and walked away from the incident. She was disoriented at the start of her evaluation, but eventually recovered and went home with her brother. Our thanks to the Riva Volunteer Fire Department, the Anne Arundel County Water Rescue, the Maryland DNR, and the Coast Guard for their assistance.

In retrospect there are always things we can do better:

  • Remain calm on the radio and report good positional data that can be easily tracked by either a boat or Coast Guard. In my case I used red navigation marker 18 and reported her position from that point in the river.
  • Have your radio on while boating and maintain good situational awareness around your boat. Four boats had passed the woman by the time the fifth boat showed up.
  • Regardless of your physical location on the water or at the dock you can make a difference if you have the right tools available. My binoculars and handheld saved the day. Without them I would have been limited in my ability to rescue that drowning person.
  • Getting involved can make a difference. The boaters that rescued the victim were new boaters, and although they did not know what to do, they did respond and saved her.

About the Author: Captain Chuck Gassert holds a 100-Ton Master Captain’s License and is the owner of South River Marine Services, LLC. He is also a delivery and training captain for Clarks Landing Marina in Shadyside. He lives on Beards Creek in Riva, MD, with his wife Maggie Taylor-Gassert who is an oncology nurse.