U.S. Coast Guard Rescuer Risks Own Life to Save Another

CAPE DISAPPOINTMENT, Wash. (Feb. 13, 2003)–The Coast Guard 52-foot motor lifeboat Invincible II on patrol passes the Cape Disappointment lighthouse Feb. 13, 2003. USCG photo by PA3 Kurt Fredrickson

This is the last in our series of blog posts leading up to our annual maritime rescue awards ceremony on Capitol Hill next week. This is the story of a U.S. Coast Guard rescue boat crewman who risked his own life to save another, and for that we are proud to present him with the Vice Admiral Thomas Sargent III Gold Medal in Washington DC.

Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Jacob M. Hylkema earned the Gold Medal for a heroic rescue in rough seas off the Washington state coast, risking his own life to save another.

Hylkema, a Boatswain’s Mate at Station Grays Harbor, Wash., was a crewmember aboard the Motor Lifeboat Invincible II and was instrumental in saving the life of a sail boat captain during a challenging rescue in driving rain, 40-50 knot winds and 16-18-foot breaking seas.

Late at night in October, the master of the sailboat Grace requested Coast Guard assistance after being beset by weather. The crew of the Invincible got underway with the intention to escort the Grace across the bar and into port. After the Coast Guard crew arrived on scene, they assessed the situation and concluded that not only was an escort not the safest decision, but both a tow and an alongside transfer were out of the question – the sail boat captain would have to don a survival suit, with strobe light, and get in the water after being passed a life ring via heaving line from the Coast Guard crew. Things did not go as planned.

The sail boat captain placed himself in the life ring, but the Coast Guard crew quickly realized that the heaving line was still attached when the captain entered the water. The line became entangled in the sail boat’s rigging, and then the captain’s legs became entangled in the line under water. The line was pulling the victim under, and the life ring was the only thing keeping his head above water.

Hylkema reportedly yelled, “We need to cut him free – I need to go,” as the Coast Guard coxswain maneuvered the rescue boat closer to the man, now in danger of drowning.

Hylkema acted fast, jumping into the water without rescue swimmer gear or a tending line back to the Invincible. He swam more than 150 feet to reach the victim in the stormy seas and cut him free from the heaving line. Hylkema kept the victim in the life ring as the Invincible crew pulled them alongside.

The sail boat captain was so exhausted, that pulling him aboard Invincible required all three crewmembers remaining onboard, which meant the coxswain had to leave the helm and throttles to complete the rescue. Hylkema had to push himself away from the pitching and rolling rescue boat to protect himself – into the darkness, and wind and seas that carried him further and further from his shipmates and safety. After recovering the victim, Invincible’s crew used their expert seamanship skills to recover Hylkema from the water and return safely to port.