The night of November 14th, 2018 was stormy off the coast of Maine. Along the coast people battened down the hatches, curled up on the couch with a blanket, a book, and a hot beverage. But 60 miles off the coast of Rockland, Maine the crew of the Aaron & Melissa II were working hard to keep their 76-foot steel dragger afloat. The seas had built to twenty feet and the wind whipped the rain and sea spray violently across the deck in 50 knot winds. For most of the night the pumps kept up with the inundation of seawater that came across the decks and found its way into the bilge, but as morning neared and the storm raged on the sea began to win, outpacing the pumps and the crew. The Aaron & Melissa II was sinking.
At 07:45 the captain got on the radio and hailed the watchstanders at USCG Sector Northern New England to report that their boat was taking on water. The USCG launched an HC-144 Ocean Sentry aircraft and a MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter from Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod to locate the distressed fishing boat.
When the Ocean Sentry arrived on scene the crew onboard had begun to don their survival suits and were preparing to launch their liferaft. The weather was still unrelenting and immediately after take off the Jayhawk helicopter began to experience heavy turbulence as it fought the wind and rain as it headed toward the sinking ship. When the Jayhawk helicopter arrived the crew of the fishing vessel had already abandoned ship. Petty Officer Nicole Groll with the Coast Guard’s Boston public affairs office, told The National Fisherman, “They had donned survival suits, had their life raft and had an EPIRB with them. They did everything necessary to make sure we could find them.”
Once on scene Rescue Swimmer, Petty Officer Michael Kelly, Aviation Survival Technician Second Class (AST2), deployed into the turbulent sea. The life raft was awash and threatened to capsize, the fishermen, even in their survival suits were suffering from hypothermia in the cold Atlantic waters, and the 50 knot winds were carrying the life raft further and further away from AST2 Kelly.
Video of Air Station Cape Cod MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew rescuing four fishermen 60 miles off the coast of Maine, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018. The fishermen abandoned ship after the boat started taking on water. (U.S. Coast Guard video)
But Kelly had taken all those factors into account before he jumped out of the helicopter into the foamy and angry sea. One by one he retrieved each fisherman, got them into the rescue basket and made sure they were properly hoisted to the hovering Jayhawk. After each hoist he set back off into the towering swells to retrieve the next person from the life raft. Two crew members were so hypothermic they could not swim, but AST2 Kelly pushed on. After each hoist AST2 Kelly had to relocate and travel back to the life raft that was constantly being taken away from him by the wind and sea. After all the crewmembers were hoisted to the helicopter, AST2 Kelly followed.
The crew members were flown to Brunswick Executive Airport in Brunswick, Maine where they were met by emergency personnel who took them to Mid Coast Hospital for treatment. All four crew members were released soon after in good condition.
The Aaron & Melissa II, however, sank roughly where the crew abandoned her in 600 feet of water.
On November 25th, 2019, just over a year after AST2 Michael Kelly rescued the crew members of that fishing boat, he will be awarded the International Maritime Organization's (IMO) award for Exceptional Bravery at Sea at the IMO Headquarters in London, UK. The IMO is the United Nations specialized agency with responsibility for the safety and security of shipping and the prevention of marine pollution. As the panel of judges reviewed the 34 individuals nominated for the award they decided that AST2 Kelly's rescue merited the highest award. During the 122nd session of the IMO Council (July 15-19, 2019) the recommendation of the judges for the award was endorsed by the full committee.
USCG Petty Officer, Michael Kelly certainly deserves this prestigious award as he lived up to both the USCG motto of, "Always Ready" as well as the rescue swimmers motto of, "So Others May Live."