Coast Guard, cops, boaters race to rescue Beaufort man, but this dog saves the day

Mason Ringer owes "Woody" a steak.

Woody would likely appreciate the gesture — though he is, reportedly, a fan of bologna.

He also likes climbing trees and, at one point, was trained to sit when hearing a "C" strummed on a ukelele.

But as he watched from a decrepit dock as Ringer struggled in the choppy, 58-degree waters of the Okatie River, Woody would not sit.

He did jump.

And he likely saved Ringer's life.

"I'm gonna buy that dog a big ol' steak," Ringer said Thursday afternoon, a day after he found himself tiring from an unexpected swim in strong currents driven by wind gusts exceeding 30 m.p.h.

Ringer, 24, of Beaufort, was one of three men who found themselves in the chilly waters near Oldfield and Camp St. Mary after their john boat capsized, according to a Beaufort County Sheriff's Office report. All three survived, which first responders say is miraculous. And while Ringer's rescue was the feel-good moment of the day, no one seemed to know much about the mystery dog that saved him.

On Wednesday afternoon, Ringer and two fellow workers decided to take a break from the dock they were refurbishing to do a bit of thrill-seeking. It was around lunchtime when they piled in the boat and zipped out across the windswept river. Moments later, when one of them tried to stand up in the boat, they found themselves in the water.

Ringer headed for the dock they'd launched from but was swept away.

One man managed to swim across the river and walk to a nearby road, where he was picked up.

The third fought the current before getting stuck in a section of marsh near Oldfield's nature trail.

A woman walking that trail thought she heard screams and called the community's security office, which asked Oldfield Outfitters Center Director Jason DuBose to investigate.

"It was windy on the trail, and I couldn't really hear or see anything," DuBose said. "I went to the end of the trail" — about a 10-minute walk — "and was about to turn back. ... But there, sure enough, in the marsh, I could see something red."

DuBose, who captains a charter for Oldfield, got a boat and went to investigate.

"We found a guy stuck up to his waist in pluff mud," DuBose said. "He had hypothermia. He was out of it, stuttering, disoriented ... speaking gibberish."

As DuBose maneuvered the boat, his assistant, Jeremy Webb, and Oldfield Director of Security Tim Helm pulled the man from the marsh.

"I wrapped him in my coat and bear-hugged him," Helm, a Marine Corps and U.S. Coast Guard veteran, said. "I told him, 'Man, this is a God-thing, dude — you would have been dead in 30 minutes.'"

When Helm and crew got the man back to shore and warmed up, they learned there were two more people in the water.

So, they went back out, and eventually found a capsized boat and clothes in the water. They followed the winding river until they saw a man standing on a dock.

"That dog was sticking to him like glue," DuBose said, recalling his first sighting of Ringer and Woody, both of whom were wet.

Moments earlier, according to Ringer, he was in the water and had given up trying to swim. He'd torn off the sweatshirt that was weighing him down and ditched his shoes as his feet cramped. He'd rolled over onto his back and tried to float, worrying about becoming the victim of a gar or whatever else lurked below.

Then he heard a dog bark.

Seconds later, he saw Woody.

He grabbed Woody's tail, and the dog towed him for a moment, but Ringer lost his grip. Woody turned around and paddled back to him, offering Ringer his collar. He pulled Ringer toward a nearby dock, yards away from the one the workers had launched from.

A police report indicated the three men had been drinking, and Ringer said one of them indeed had been. But he said he had not, and both DuBose and Helm said Ringer did not smell of alcohol or seem intoxicated. None of the men were charged with any crimes, according to the Sheriff's Office.

"He seemed like he was in shock," DuBose said of Ringer. "I think he was just starting to realize the gravity of the situation and wonder about what happened to the other two guys."

Although local fire departments, the Sheriff's Office, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Coast Guard were dispatched to the scene, Woody was Ringer's first responder.

And that was pure luck.

Woody often spends time in Savannah, where his owners, the Atkinson family, live. They have some family land in the Okatie area, though, and that's where the 7-year-old yellow Labrador retriever was getting some exercise Wednesday.

"He likes to go in the water and pick up rocks," Susan Atkinson said during a phone interview.

But he's gun shy and doesn't like fireworks, she said, and he once had a tail-tucking standoff with a deer.

"He's got bravery in other ways," Atkinson said, chuckling.

The Atkinsons are Woody's third owners, having adopted him in 2011 from an Omaha, Neb., humane society, where they learned he'd been at a Florida shelter previously.

Over the years, Atkinson's daughter taught Woody to recognize a "C." Her son would climb trees with him. And, one time, they had to sedate him after a run-in with a porcupine.

They would also test his DNA, to see if he was a pure-bred lab — they thought he looked the part.

And they were surprised to find he was a quarter bloodhound.

There were subtle tells, Atkinson said.

His nose wasn't completely black.

He didn't have the typical lab tail.

And the webbing on his feet wasn't as pronounced.

Still, a pretty good swimmer.