Fripp Island volunteers put new wrinkle in saving lives at sea

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comJuly 19, 2012 

This photo, taken from a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter, shows firefighters with Lady's Island-St. Helena Fire District and Fripp Island Sea Rescue crewmen rescuing the family of eight after their inflatable rafts drifted out into St. Helena Sound.

SUBMITTED PHOTO — Submitted photo

They are the old men in the sea.

The oldest is 82. The baby is 56. On average they're 70.

They have hearing aids, metallic knees and heart stents.

Yet they sally forth day or night into the foaming sea.

They are the all-volunteer Fripp Island Sea Rescue squad.

Last week, they helped save the lives of eight people -- including five children ages 3, 6, 9, 11 and 13. A Georgia family vacationing at Harbor Island went into the ocean in four inflatable rafts. The wind and current quickly pushed them two miles offshore. Everyone survived, thanks to the Lady's Island-St. Helena Fire District, the Fripp Island Fire Department -- and the old men in the sea.

The old men actually form the youngest of three volunteer marine search and rescue squads in Beaufort County. All the volunteers train constantly and use untold amounts of their own money and time to go out when no one should be out, 365 days a year, to help mere strangers. The Bluffton Marine Rescue Squad was formed in 1961, Beaufort Water Search and Rescue in 1975 and the Fripp Island group in 1983. They work together, along with the U.S. Coast Guard, the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office, dispatchers, fire and rescue departments and the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, to find and rescue old salts, or more likely, tourists who might ask: "Is it high tide every day at noon?"

Paul Field, 82, will be retiring this fall from the Fripp Island Sea Rescue unit he helped found and lead for 29 years.

It was organized after two fathers from Columbia took their two little girls out in a small boat with wind howling and white caps thrashing against the sandbars of Skull Inlet. The boat capsized. By the grace of God, it was on a sandbar. A kid on the beach went to them in a two-person kayak. Tide and wind kept him from returning the little girls to shore, but he could take them one by one to a shrimp boat waiting offshore. Field dashed into his 25-foot boat and helped get the adults as hypothermia set in.

"After that incident, I realized how damn exposed we were," Field said.

They foolishly thought the people they rescued would contribute toward squad expenses, but they may hear from one in 10. The county has contributed $30,000, the Fripp Company has provided a lifeline, and the volunteers cosponsor an annual fundraising golf tournament with the Beaufort squad. It's been estimated the service they offer would cost taxpayers $475,000 a year.

Field says the old men in the sea have responded to 1,300 to 1,400 cases, helped 3,000 to 3,500 people, and saved at least 100 lives.

He said the old men go for the opportunity to give someone their life back.

"I don't know how to express it," Field said. "I don't know how to replicate it."

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