Jim Bullard, vice president of Smith Point Sea Rescue, shares with PropTalk this story of an amazing rescue of a man overboard near Reedville, VA.

smith point sea rescue
A man went overboard, and a passenger was stranded on the boat, unable to operate it. The last landmark he spotted was the Smith Point Light off Reedville, VA.

Just after 8 p.m. on Monday, July 29, the Northumberland Sheriff’s office received a 911 call from a panicked man who reported he was on a boat and the captain/owner had fallen overboard and vanished. He told the dispatcher he had no idea where he was or how to operate the boat. The dispatcher called Smith Point Sea Rescue and provided the man’s cell number.

The senior boat captain, Buddy Sylvia, called the man and asked, “Can you read me the latitude and longitude off the boat’s GPS?” The man did not understand. “Can you see land?” “No!” he said. “Can you see anything?” He replied, “I think I saw a lighthouse.” “Is it Smith Point Light?” “Maybe," he said, "but please help me!”

Rescue 1 was immediately dispatched from Reedville with a crew of four and headed out to Smith Point Light as darkness fell. Once at the lighthouse the crew turned on search lights and began looking for the boat on their radar with no success. The wind was blowing 15-20 mph, waves were five to seven feet high, and they were now in total darkness.

Figuring that the missing boat was being driven by the wind and current, the crew began slowly cruising with the wind in a NNW direction, scanning with handheld searchlights as they progressed. After an hour of hopeless searching, one of the crewmen thought he heard a cry from the dark waters and swung his spotlight around to see a man rising and falling as he floated just 40 feet from the boat. Incredulous at their good luck the crew threw a tethered life ring to the man and hauled him aboard Rescue 1. The man was wearing a life jacket and told the crew he’d been in the water for about four hours. He was exhausted and terrified, but otherwise unhurt.

smith point sea rescue
Crew on July 29 rescue, from left: Buddy Sylvia, Mike Romey, Steve Bowen, and Robert Gwaltney. Courtesy of Smith Point Sea Rescue

The man explained that he and his friend had been cobia fishing all day when they hooked a fish that swam around their boat and tangled the fishing line in the propeller. In an effort to land the fish the captain put on a lifejacket and jumped overboard to untangle the line. In minutes the boat moved away leaving him in the water and his passenger stranded aboard.

The crew suggested they return to land where a medical team could treat the man. The man quickly replied, “No, no, you must find my boat and the man aboard. He has no idea how my boat works.”

Rescue 1 then resumed a slow search following the wind and waves. After another hour a crewman spotted a light that was bobbing up and down (unlike the stationary lights on the shoreline). Sure enough, there was the 26-foot walk-around cabin cruiser with one man aboard. In rocking seas, duty captain Mike Romey brought Rescue 1 close enough to the cruiser that the crew was able to throw a line to the man aboard and instruct him how to secure it. The man, who had been drifting alone for hours, was anxious to get off the boat so the two boats were pulled together and the rescue crew grabbed the man and pulled him onto Rescue 1 where he was astounded to find his friend.

A crewman from Rescue 1 then jumped into the cruiser to adjust the towline and steer the boat while it was towed all the way back to the Sea Rescue boathouse in Reedville. The exhausted crew and their two passengers arrived at about 1:15 a.m. and were greeted by two county EMTs and two officers from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. After determining that both men were in good shape and their boat was secured, a member of the Sea Rescue crew drove the men to their home in Sunnybank.

At a gathering of Smith Point Sea Rescue members a day later, duty captain Mike Romey and his crew of Buddy Sylvia, Robert Gwaltney, and Steve Bowen marveled at their incredible luck finding a man adrift in heavy seas and total darkness when they had no coordinates to follow.

“If we had been fifty yards to the left or the right, we’d have gone right by him.”

“We couldn’t see him, we just happened to hear his cry for help over the din of the motors and the wind.”

“There’s no doubt about it, this was divine intervention.”

Buddy Sylvia, who has probably participated in more rescue missions on the Bay than anyone in history may have said it best: “Finding that man in the water was a miracle. We had less than a million to one chance of finding him and we did it!”