NORFOLK – It was just before midnight when the Corps dredge Currituck’s crew, sailing back from a project site on Bennet’s Creek, saw the sky light up.
As the dredge chugged toward the Monitor Merrimack Memorial Bridge Tunnel on Sept. 16, a red flare spiraled into the night sky like a fire work off to the west.
But this was no fireworks show – it was a signal for help.
Robert Mason, captain of the Currituck, said three of his crew members saw the flare.
“At the time, we didn’t know how far the flare was from the vessel, but we continued toward the area,” he said.
According to Mason, one of the deckhands began to shine a search light through the darkness to find where the flare came from, while Mason radioed the Coast Guard.
In the narrow beam of the ship’s searchlight, deckhand Skip Conway spotted a small rubber raft floating in the water.
Mason steered the Currituck toward the raft and pulled alongside it.
Inside the raft, the crew found a man, soaked and shivering in the 64-degree night.
The crew brought the man and the raft aboard at about 12:20 a.m., more than two hours after his ordeal began.
“Other than cold, he appeared to be fine,” Mason said.
Mason says the crew gave the man some spare clothing, and brought him to the engine room, the warmest place on the vessel.
According to Masson, the man said he was cruising from one marina to another when his boat lost power in the middle of the James River.
“He launched the raft and tried to make his way back to the marina, but was overcome by the currents,” Mason said.
The man was safely transported back to the Norfolk District’s headquarters building, where his wife met him.
Mason said the man’s experience serves as a cautionary tale for boaters.
“Never leave a perfectly safe vessel, broke down or not,” Mason said. “It is shelter, it is dry and it is way safer than in a raft left to the devices of Mother Nature. The gentleman could easily have lost his life that night.”