For Houston Pilots boat crew,

water rescue exercises

with USCG put to actual test

Fog and deteriorating visibility greeted Captain Robert Janke as he arrived around 1430 on January 14, 2020 at the Houston Pilot boat dock on Galveston Island.  There, he climbed aboard the venerable single-hull pilot boat YELLOW ROSE.  Janke stepped into the wheelhouse to commence his regular 12-hour shift ferrying Houston Pilots and pilot boat crews to and from their assignments on the bustling Houston Ship Channel.  The 20-year veteran marine captain was soon joined on board by fellow pilot boat Captain Drew Blasdel, and deckhands Joe Hill and David Valerio.  As he studied the weather charts and glanced at the schedule of waiting inbound and outbound ship transits, Janke readied for another routine shift on the Houston Ship Channel.  But this evening would suddenly and dramatically stray from routine for Janke, Blasdel, Hill and Valerio.

After the deckhands dropped ropes, Janke slowly pulled from the dock sailing away at idling speed when a heavy fog bank appeared ominously ahead.  Dense fog had limited ship transits to outbound traffic only.   Janke cautiously made his way toward the Houston Ship Channel leading to the outer anchorage beyond Galveston Bay.   There, one of two large swath-design pilot boats was awaiting Janke’s arrival with eight Houston Pilots and two deckhands aboard who were ready to return home.

As the YELLOW ROSE slipped into the fog bank, the normal cacophony of radio chatter punctuating the wheelhouse was sharply interrupted around 1540 by a call from Houston Pilot Captain Calvin Murphy aboard an outbound ship.  Captain Murphy alerted Janke to a collision involving a fishing boat with crew members overboard near the jetties at the entrance to Galveston Bay.  All attention on the Yellow Rose swung to a water rescue operation. Studying his AIS screen, Janke set a course for the collision scene. The crew began preparations drawing upon their water rescue training exercises conducted four times a year by the Houston Pilots in tandem with USCG Air Guard and swimmers.  Their countless hours of training would be put to the ultimate test very shortly this evening.

Surrounded by zero visibility, Janke steadied the boat allowing Blasdel, Hill and Valerios to search and listen from the deck for any sightings and human sounds from the dark waters surrounding the collision site.   Soon, they spied a large strange dark shadow protruding from the water and heard sounds nearby.  The deckhands spotted a man screaming in pain and thrashing franticly in the water.  They immediately threw a life preserver to the desperate man.  

Pulling the fisherman from the water onto the deck, the crew members could see that he was badly bloodied, injured and shivering from the cold water.  They managed to get the man to the back deck and covered the him in blankets while offering words of comfort in an effort to calm him.  The injured man reportedly sounded and appeared to be incoherent and suffering from shock. 

Back in the wheelhouse, Janke radioed for EMS response and steered a straight course through the fog and zero visibility back to the Houston Pilots dock.  Upon arrival minutes later, the pilot boat was greeted by waiting EMS personnel.  The EMS crew climbed aboard the YELLOW ROSE and went to work on the injured fisherman before transporting him aboard an ambulance and departing for a nearby hospital.

According to news reports, three other crew members aboard the sunken stricken fishing boat had been thrown into the water.  A responding USCG boat crew reportedly rescued one while other responders searched for the two other overboard fishermen who reportedly went missing until discovered days later when the fishing boat was floated.

Janke, Blasdel, Hill and Valerio returned to transferring Houston Pilots and deckhands.  The USCG later credited the four pilot boat crew members for the life saving rescue.

“The Houston Pilots are very proud of the prompt and heroic response on the early afternoon hours of January 24 by Captains Robert Janke and Drew Blasdel and deckhands Joe Hill and David Valerio,”  said CaptainRobert Thompson, presiding officer.  “The Houston Pilots invest considerable time and energy training for responding to unforeseen water emergencies.  The YELLOW ROSE crew and their actions exemplify the commitment of the Houston Pilots and all our pilot boat crews to safety.  We are very proud of their hard work and dedication to safety.”