Coast Guard Savannah

Story by: Lauren Hunsberger

Photography and video by: Ryan Gibson

“In the event that the helicopter goes down, just remember R.E.I.R.S.E.L,” says Cory Ceikot, a rescue swimmer with the United States Coast Guard Air Station Savannah. “‘R’ is for reference point, ‘E’ is for emergency exit …” he says, explaining the safety procedure used for water crashes. These are not words I want to hear. But it’s too late. Suddenly, I’m upside down, under water, caged in on all sides, and scrambling to release the seatbelt buckle that will free me and allow me to surface. I can’t get it undone.

What have I gotten myself into? I try the strap again, but my brain can’t seem to stay calm enough. I suddenly realize I have already expelled all the air I can out of my nose, and water is starting to make its way in. My lungs crave a breath. That’s when, although I am a very experienced swimmer, I start to panic. I can no longer tell which way is up or down in the foggy water, and I still can’t get the last buckle on my seatbelt undone. The panicked feeling is getting stronger. My assignment for this story was to explore what it takes to be a member of the Coast Guard, arguably one of the most adventurous, adrenaline-pumping jobs in the world. So with that in mind, I had prepared myself to hear stories of heartwarming heroism, like that of aircraft commander Lt. Frank Minopoli who recalls a MEDEVAC (medical evacuation) mission he was on in which the crew was tasked to rescue a shrimper who had severed his arm in a winch.

“The only person out there with [the shrimper] was his son, who was only 10 years old. I talked his son through the whole thing. He kept asking me, ‘Is my dad going to be all right? Is my dad going to die?’ We were able to help save his dad, and that’s very gratifying.” I also prepped myself to hear a fair share of stomach-churning stories involving bad boating accidents and plane crashes told by guys like Darren Navarra, who, like Ceikot, is a rescue swimmer, expertly trained to be hoisted or jump out of aircrafts to save people in dangerous situations. Navarra related that one of his most intense moments on the job was a call that simply said, “A boat has blown up and two guys had their legs blown off in the accident.” And I was definitely prepared to talk with Commanding Officer Gregory T. Fuller about all the perks and perils unique to this air station, which covers a rescue zone of about 450 miles, stretching all the way up the coast to the North Carolina/South Carolina border and down to Melbourne, Florida.

Within that stretch of land, on any given day, he says they can be called for anything from commercial fishing accidents to missing vessels, assisting with interagency drug stings or helping patrol the ports in a law enforcement capacity and more. “In addition, we also have a lot of inland cases in the swamps and rivers,” Fuller says. “And that’s a huge challenge because everything looks the same.” Strong 12-foot winter seas, tides that fluctuate between 10 and 12 feet, black brackish water with almost zero visibility, and strong currents in the river channels also make his list of the most dangerous aspects of working on the Southeastern coast. Fuller has been leading the air station since June 2012, but he has spent 20 years in the Coast Guard and has served in places like Miami, California and even Iraq. “This is one of the best air stations in the Coast Guard,” he says. “It’s a very sought-after location.”

And it’s with this statement that I remember yet another important topic I was fully prepared to encounter: Could the quality of this vital East Coast station that responds to about 300 calls a year be compromised due to recent budget cuts in Washington? He says the station will not suffer. “It will not impact search and rescue, and it won’t impact my crew’s readiness and proficiency,” he says. What I wasn’t prepared for when tackling this assignment was to find myself desperately, blindly searching with my hands for a way to exit a submerged helicopter. To read the whole story, pick up your copy of South’s April/May Adventure Issue, featuring Savannah’s Staycations, at one of these locations today.