First responders conduct swim rescue drills in Sakonnet River

Exercise intended to mimic actual emergencies


PORTSMOUTH/TIVERTON — It appeared to be one the largest mutual-aid rescues ever seen in the Sakonnet River, as a couple dozen first responders from Portsmouth, Tiverton and beyond converged between the Stone Bridge approaches Thursday morning to rescue nine swimmers found clinging to rocks and a channel marker.

But the “victims” were first responders, too, and this was but a drill. (A few confused boaters who stumbled upon the scene were ordered to power up and pass through quickly.)

The large-scale training event, which involved firefighters and/or police officers from Portsmouth, Middletown, Tiverton and Little Compton, as well as U.S. Coast Guard Station Castle Hill, was organized by Capt. Steven Lynch of the Portsmouth Fire Department.

“The area departments have recognized a need for rescue swimmers,” Capt. Lynch explained. “They’re beginning to put their members through rescue swimming classes, mainly the ones held in Charlestown. We decided to get everyone together and do an interagency response much like how we would respond during an everyday mutual aid call.”

Portsmouth recently took part in a drill at the Middletown line that was very successful, he noted. “It was based on a call we had about two weeks prior to that, where a gentleman had fallen face first into a crevice under the rocks. His family was able to recover him that day, but we recognize that we need to get out there and practice on our response,” he said.

In Thursday’s scenario, swimmers first grabbed a cord attached to the “green can” — a channel marker just south of the former Stone Bridge — and then on the rocks at the end of both the Tiverton and Portsmouth bridge abutments. Later, they switched to under the Escape Bridge, acting out a storyline in which a youngster jumped from the span, got hurt and grabbed onto a pylon.

In each drill, one or two “rescue” swimmers jumped from boats and dragged the “victim” back to the vessel. The exercises tested the skills of both the boat operators and the rescue swimmers who had to deal with strong currents and cold water.  

“The way the currents run through out here, you get a lot of rapids-style churning of the water,” said Capt. Lynch. “At times, when you get storm surges, these channel markers will actually be submerged under the water because the current is so strong, especially with an outgoing tide. We chose today because we have a bit of a high change in the tide. It’s going to be an incoming tide and a lot of guys haven’t swum in this kind of water. It will help get them acclimated, as an incoming tide isn’t as fast as an outgoing tide.”

This type of rescue swimming is a unique skill set, but is invaluable in this area, he said. The fire department became interested in switching to this model after a 12-year-old boy drowned in Blue Bill Cove in 2015, he said.

One of the swimmers Thursday was Lt. Andrew Jones, a Portsmouth firefighters. 

“I’ve taken the rescue swimming class, which is the Coast Guard equivalent for their cutter swimmers. It’s a 40-hour class, so we’ll be reiterating some of that training today,” he said. The drill mimicked a call he and other firefighters responded to a few years ago, when a boater hit one of the channel markers and fell into the water, he added.

‘Good in the water’

The youngest swimmer was Charlie Dahl, a 19-year-old member of the Coast Guard. Mr. Dahl grew up in Hawaii and served on a cutter there before coming to Castle Hill only a few months ago. This was his first time participating in a swim rescue drill in the ocean, and the Sakonnet’s water temperature (57 degrees) was a far cry from what he was used to back home.

No matter. He threw himself in the water with gusto, showing off his strong swimming skills during several different scenarios.

“It was last minute, so I just brought my wet suit that I surf in so I think I’m going to be freezing. I don’t have the right kind of gear, but it sounded like something awesome to do. I’m good in the water,” said Mr. Dahl.

Although they didn’t swim, three members of the Little Compton Fire Department made the trip from Sakonnet Point to participate in the drill. 

“We’re just going to be assisting Portsmouth and the swimmers,” said Lt. James Vandal. “We don’t have swimmers in Little Compton, so we’re going to be learning some of their techniques — how they go about putting a swimmer in the water and pulling them back out. We’re here to get some experience with that.”

Lt. Vandal said swimmers from the Portsmouth and Middletown fire departments will often assist his department at Sakonnet Point. 

“We need to know how to do it, and it’s one of the things that we’re lacking. Over the past couple of years we’ve had some good boat operator training, so this is kind of the next step for us — to get involved with the surrounding communities so we can be more effective in our ability to help out,” he said.

Thanks to marina owner

Capt. Lynch and Portsmouth Harbormaster Stephen Burns said they were grateful to Bruce White, owner of Stone Bridge Marina, who allowed the use of his docks to those who participated. The new Thrive coffeehouse across the street on Park Avenue also offered all first responders free coffee after the drills.

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.