Greenport captain, crew save sailors off Rhode Island coast

Captain Sid Smith stands at the bow of the Merit in Greenport this summer. Mr. Smith and his two crew were dubbed heroes after they rescued four people who were thrown into stormy seas Wednesday night when their tugboat sank. (Credit: Paul Squire)
Captain Sid Smith stands at the bow of the Merit in Greenport this summer. Mr. Smith and his two crew were dubbed heroes after they rescued four people who were thrown into stormy seas Wednesday night when their tugboat sank. (Credit: Paul Squire)

A Greenport fishing boat captain and his two crew members rescued four people from heaving seas and high winds when their 55-foot-long tugboat capsized and sank off the Rhode Island coast last night.

All four men were unharmed, despite spending nearly a half hour in the stormy water, according to multiple sources who praised Sid Smith, captain of the Merit, and his crew members, Gary Detrick of Greenport and Ernie Nicholson of Rhode Island.

“He executed a flawless pickup of these guys,” said Phil Capolupo, co-owner of SRS New England, which owned the boat. “The guy really is a hero. He was in the right place at the right time, but then he did the right thing on top of that.”

Four people had been aboard the Karen Jean, a tugboat towing a 110-foot-long barge, around 6:30 p.m. when the boat began taking on water listing at a 45-degree angle about a mile-and-a-half offshore.

“It was disgusting out last night,” said U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Karen Kutkiewicz. “They must have gone down quick.”

The Coast Guard Cutter Sanibel from Woods Hole, Mass.; Cutter Tiger Shark from Newport, R.I., Cutter Sitkinak from Bayonne, N.J., and Station Point Judith responded to the mayday call, Lt. Kutkiewicz said.

But the Coast Guard had trouble getting through the rough seas and had to launch response boats from port to race to the scene. Thankfully, she said, Mr. Smith was nearby.

Mr. Smith said he and his crew had been planning to return to Newport, R.I. last night to beat the storm, but a chain on one of the fishing nets broke, forcing them to turn in to Point Judith. A few hours later as they headed into port — with winds gusting 45 miles per hour and seas about 8 feet high — they heard a distress call.

“The wind was really picking up and I heard this guy make a mayday call,” Mr. Smith said. “I looked at where we were and I knew it was s—–y out. I knew we were close.”

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Mr. Smith and his crew in the Merit sailed over to the site of the mayday, but by the time they got there, the Karen Jean had already sunk.

“The must’ve sunk within minutes because they ended up in the water,” he said. “[It’s] pitch black. I know there’s four people but I don’t know where they are.”

The Merit’s crew searched the waters using their spotlight and soon found a life raft; a hand was waving out of the covered raft, but Mr. Smith said he could see one man — the captain, whom Mr. Smith described as a “large man” — hanging onto the raft’s side floating in the water.

The boat had sank so quickly that the crew didn’t have time to don survival suits.

“There’s no time to think,” Mr. Smith said. The Merit crew immediately got to work.

The rough seas made the rescue difficult, Mr. Smith said. He and his crew maneuvered the Merit carefully, unsure of where the Karen Jean’s tow line may have been. They turned the Merit upwind and let the life raft float down to them.

Three of the Karen Jean’s crew were safe inside the life raft, but the captain of the tugboat hadn’t been able to get inside and was forced to cling to the outside of the raft. The three crew members inside the raft climbed up a ladder onto the Merit, but the captain was too weak, Mr. Smith said.

The crew threw out a lifeline to the captain and pulled him to the ladder; Mr. Smith reached overboard and held onto him until he regained enough strength to climb out.

“I just told him ‘Relax. I got ya,’ ” Mr. Smith said.

Mr. Smith said he gave the waterlogged crew his clothes and warmed them up with food as they turned the Merit toward safety.

None of the men needed medical attention once they arrived back in port in Rhode Island, said U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Kutkiewicz. The Coast Guard recovered the barge that the tugboat had been towing, and are now determining whether to try to raise the Karen Jean, Mr. Capolupo said.

Lt. Kutkiewicz said the actions of the Merit were vital, especially considering the weather conditions that forced the Coast Guard to respond to several emergencies.

“He’s a hero there,” she said.

Mr. Smith said there’s a camaraderie shared by all fishermen, but added what he and his crew did wasn’t special; it was just the right thing to do, he said.

“You do what you have to do,” Mr. Smith said. “It’s one of them things. If I was in the water, I’d wish someone was coming for me.”

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