15 rescued from stuck pontoon boat

Becky Vargo • Jul 21, 2015 at 2:46 PM

The boatload of Muskegon residents returning to Spring Lake from the fireworks in Grand Haven missed their turn, ran out of gas and drifted onto a deadfall somewhere near Lloyd’s Bayou in the Grand River, said Senior Chief Justin Olson of Coast Guard Station Grand Haven.

After a search and rescue that took most of the night, all of the boaters were transported safely to the Holiday Inn in Spring Lake.

Tow Boat U.S. Capt. Brian DeVries of Grand Haven received a call from his company’s dispatch of a stranded boat. His office had received the request from Ottawa County Central Dispatch.

Already on board his personal boat at North Shore Marina, DeVries said he just jumped over to the workboat and headed up the river shortly after midnight.

DeVries said because the call was not an emergency, he proceeded at no-wake speeds, taking between a half-hour and 45 minutes to reach the vicinity of the missing boat. Due to the fog and the navigation hazards in the river, it took another hour to find the boat, he said.

The towboat operator began working with the Coast Guard when he lost communications with a 13-year-old girl, the oldest of the three children onboard a 16-foot pontoon boat full of hearing-impaired adults.

Officials reported the overloaded boat also had only a couple of lifejackets onboard.

DeVries had GPS coordinates of the pontoon’s location, but had trouble finding the right channel to communicate with the boat.

“They were flashing a lantern — I was using the horn,” DeVries said. “Amanda (the 13-year-old girl) was talking to the Coast Guard, letting us know when I was getting closer.”

The group went through several cellphones as batteries were drained throughout the night, said the Coast Guard’s Olson.

DeVries said he got within a couple hundred yards of the boat, but kept running into shallow water, despite several attempts at different approaches. That’s when the Coast Guard sent manpower to the scene.

Olson said his crew, whom had been underway all day because of the Fourth of July holiday, had just tied up at the dock when the request for their help came at about 1:30 a.m.

Already knowing that none of their boats could get into the shallow cattail area, the crew responded to East Grand River Park in Grand Haven with their inflatable ice rescue skiff. Olson said he stayed onshore while a three-man crew loaded up lifejackets for the stranded boaters, and then used a small outboard motor to cross the river to the site.

The Coast Guard crew used the towboat as a rescue platform, and moved the cold and wet group — 2-3 at a time — to the towboat with the skiff.

“(The temperature) got down into the 50s that night,” Olson said. “The people on the boat were not dressed for a cold night on the river.”

Once all of the boaters were onboard the towboat, the group was transported to the Holiday Inn, where hotel staff provided a warm environment in the indoor pool area with blankets and coffee, Olson said. Paramedics checked over everybody at that location, but did not transport anyone to the hospital.

Olson said some of the boaters were suffering because of missed medication. Two of them were having trouble with their legs.

“This is the perfect example of how something can turn tragic really quick,” Olson said. “What that young girl, Amanda, did – being able to calm all those adults, being able to maintain her composure the whole time – is astounding.”

Olson said the Coast Guard will address the boat being overloaded and the lack of lifejackets. He said the boat’s owner returned later Saturday morning in a kayak with gasoline and was able to remove the pontoon.

DeVries said the Coast Guard crew did a fantastic job.

“I’m sure glad to have them here,” he said.

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