A Day in the Life of a United States Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer

Rescue SwimmerWhether he's jumping out of a helicopter into the Atlantic Ocean to rescue boaters and swimmers in trouble, flying on a training mission along the East Coast or fixing and mending his water gear; Petty Officer Third Class John K. Opsal begins each shift prepared to save others. This is a day in the life of a United States Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer.

Joining the USCG in August 2007, Opsal underwent extensive and intense physical training, and after graduation he continued his career by enrolling in the Coast Guard's rescue swimmer program. Being in the water comes naturally to the San Diego native, who grew up surfing and water skiing, and Opsal was drawn to this profession from an early age.

"I joined to do rescue swimming," he says. "I knew right away that was what I wanted to do."

Looking to fulfill his dream of becoming a rescue swimmer operating out of a helicopter -- more formally known as an aviation survival technician -- Opsal had one final challenge: a physical endurance test.

The rigorous evaluation must be concluded in one hour, in a continuous sequence. Some of the criteria includes sit-ups, push-ups, pull-ups, chin-ups, a 1.5-mile run in under 12 minutes, a 500-yard swim in under 12 minutes, a 400-yard gear swim in seven minutes, a 200-yard buddy tow, and four underwater laps, with one minute of rest in-between. After passing the test, Opsal has served as a qualified rescue swimmer for a little over a year.

Assigned to Air Station Atlantic City, Opsal typically works six or seven 24-hour shifts each month. This air station is one of a few which has two ready crews standing by consisting of two pilots, two co-pilots, two rescue swimmers and two flight mechanics.

Hazardous Duty

Opsal was standing duty on December 23, 2010, a cold and stormy winter night with fellow crew members. The team included a pilot, co-pilot, flight mechanic and Opsal, the rescue swimmer. That night proved to forever change his life, as he would reach a major milestone. Beginning like any other shift, they carried out normal duties. He recalls their standard operations, "Come in and brief about the weather, if there were any SAR cases, and what the plan is for training flights that day," he added, "Usually right around sunset we go on a two-hour training flight."

Suddenly, a SAR call came in that a vessel was in distress, Opsal and his crew were deployed to search for survivors. The crew is always mindful that every second counts, as they grab their gear, suit up, board the helicopter and fly out.

Opsal remembers the night well. "We were seven miles south of Cape May and we were eight miles off-shore. It was 2 a.m. and we got the call of two people in the water. We didn't have an exact position -- the sector gives us a search pattern to fly. We flew the whole search pattern. After they finished it they said to fly a couple more miles east."

The four-member crew continued searching for about 30 minutes when they finally came across reflective debris floating in the water. According to Opsal, the debris led them to the scene. "We saw the vessel after that and there were life rafts blown up in the water, there was debris all over, you could see the boat was half sinking, you could see water going over it."

The treacherous conditions added to the intensity and danger of the rescue. Difficult to see during the nighttime storm, Opsal wore night vision goggles as he was carefully lowered down into the raging ocean, scanning the water for survivors. Coast guardsmen are not allowed to jump out of the helicopter at night, for safety reasons. The brave rescue swimmer recounted his descent that evening. "I disconnect the hook, give them a signal I'm okay and then they hoist the cable back up."

Aware of the hazardous conditions he works in, Opsal said that night was particularly challenging due to weather. "Those conditions were pretty bad, it was solid 10 foot swells and it was really windy."

Meanwhile, two 47-foot motor life boat crews from Coast Guard Stations Cape May and Indian River, Delaware, were also deployed to the scene to assist the air crew.

Swimming in the murky ocean water, dodging debris and trying to make his way to potential survivors, Opsal located one of the men and recalls his approach. "I talked to him and he was somewhat coherent and then I got him, but the swells were so bad I couldn't get him in the rescue basket because he was too hypothermic. His body was too stiff, so I ended up taking him to the 47 foot life boat. The crew there helped me pull him on deck and then we did a hoist right off of the back of the boat - me and him into the helicopter."

Facing Fear Daily

Having practiced search and rescue operations so many times, Opsal says responding has become second nature to him, despite being in perilous situations with only seconds to think. In addition to his knowledge and experience, he says, "Training just kicks in, we do this all the time." He continued, saying his main concern during this rescue was to, "Get him out of the water as soon as possible and get him to the hospital and that was all I was really thinking about."

This was Opsal's first save, a truly courageous rescue he will remember for the rest of his life. Eric Hopkins, the man this heroic coast guardsman saved, had the opportunity to thank his rescuer in person by presenting Opsal with a written thank you letter. During the awards ceremony, Opsal also received a Coast Guard Commendation Medal. After the rare reunion, Opsal said he was happy to see that Hopkins made a full recovery. "It was a cool experience seeing him, because when I was with him the first time, he was in bad shape-he could barely talk."

Swimming to the aid of people in trouble, Opsal's main goal is to locate and rescue survivors. His unique job creates an adrenaline rush, motivating him to face fear on a daily basis. A gratifying component of Opsal's career is having the opportunity to help others. When asked about saving people in this special line of work, he humbly answered, "Definitely rewarding, really rewarding. Not very many people get to do that."

While this is a high-risk job, Opsal draws strength and endurance from his desire to make a difference in the world. It's all in a day's work as a United States Coast Guard rescue swimmer.

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Dawn A. Carroll Bark

How does this job translate to the outside world or federal civil service? What job title or series do you search for?


August 21 2013 at 7:45 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

‎@Yehoshua: "pretty cool"? "Just...doing his job"? Do you even realize how jealous you sound? You took time out of your day to passive-aggresively belittle a hero's accomplishment, basically making yourself look like a complete jackass. Please don't have offspring.

June 23 2011 at 10:50 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

This guy is pretty cool, just wonder why he got a medal for doing his job

June 23 2011 at 2:27 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Yehoshua's comment

"pretty cool"? "Just...doing his job"? Do you even realize how jealous you sound? You took time out of your day to passive-aggresively belittle a hero's accomplishment, basically making yourself look like a complete jackass. Please don't have offspring.

June 23 2011 at 10:39 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

That coast guard did a very good job and god bless him.They should have more men like that but they do not.God bless you.

June 23 2011 at 2:14 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Hey, all you USCG swimmers. Guess who comes to rescue you. Take it a step up and become a PJ / USAF. 6 years / 66 to 72. You want to talk about tough training. LOL You tried to take our Motto " So that others may live"...Leave it to the real toughest rescue swimmers. Just kidding.

June 23 2011 at 1:53 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

he is a very brave man

June 23 2011 at 1:24 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I was in the USCG from 91 through 2001. I blew out my left knee on a flight in Kodiak AK and could not fly anymore. I was a flight mechanic, the one on the helo that lowers the swimmer ino the water and does all the hoisting. I want to thank everyone for their kind posts about the Coast Guard. One of the hardest things to get used to was the fact that you did feel like no one knows what we are doing and if you try to tell friends and family you knew they could get some idea but it is really unimaginable to people unless they did it. You really had to be ok with silent pride of 'well at least I know and thats good enough" Another aspect of it you dont get from this article is the amount of cases you do that dont work out like this one with a survivor that lives to thank you. The ratio of saved people to the dead and disfigured ones was very lopsided for me.I was in the first helo on scene when TWA 800 hit the water 250 dead. Just layed on my stomach in a 20ft hover dropping chem lights on body after body. Lots of good life saving rescues in my 13 yrs but far more ugly situations in terrible conditions that will never be remebered by anyone but the helo crew that dealt with the mess for closure for the families. You wont read about them but their all in my head forver. PTSD isnt just for war vets. Anyway I digress, All I really intended to say was thank you for your posts and there are 4 crewman on every SEARCH and RESCUE case not just 1 recue swimmer..LOL Sorry ASTs I had to say that for the pilots and Mechs.

June 23 2011 at 1:23 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

My dad back in the day was in the Coast Gaurd during WWII. He used to tell me stories that were hard to beleive. As a boater, I appreciate knowing that if I get in dire trouble, that the USCG is there to help. Cudos to all the men and women that serve!!

June 23 2011 at 1:13 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply

I have a 21 year old grandson, who is a paramedic and loves every minute of it... He is very athletic and wants to join the Coast Guard for the rescue part of it and helping people in trouble ... I wish him all the luck and hope he does well... I back him all the way.....

June 23 2011 at 1:11 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Rick Elkin

The Coast Guard is the most underrated of our Military Services. These guys go out when noone else will. I am a HUGE fan of the USCG...God Bless every man and woman in the United States Coast Guard..."Semper Paratus"...(always ready.)...

June 23 2011 at 12:58 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply

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