difficulties inherent in simulating rescues at sea. There’s no way, in a pool environment (unless James Cameron is involved), to recreate heavy seas, roaring winds and currents, and a 40- to 80-mile-per-hour rotor wash. So every pretend survivor must be a panicked survivor. It’s perhaps unsurprising that the rescue swimmer training school has an approximately 75 percent dropout rate. In Cotturone’s class of 12, only four people graduated. Yet Cotturone says he never let himself even consider the possibility of not completing the course. “I never thought I couldn’t do it,” he muses. “Nothing is impossible.”
Tips from a Real-life Rescue Swimmer n Wear a PFD or have an inflatable PFD somewhere on your person. n Consider purchasing a personal EPIRB or, at the very least, a strobe light. Attach it to a Velcro strap on the shoulder of your PFD or keep it in your pocket. n If you’re a paddler who wears a wetsuit while on the water, attach reflective strips to your suit. (And again, attach your strobe light to your PFD’s shoulder. Do not put your strobe light in your kayak’s front compartment or anywhere out of reach!) n Create a float plan for every outing, and leave it with a trusted person on shore. n If you’re overdue but not in an emergency situation, contact that person immediately so he or she doesn’t initiate a search. n Make sure that person knows if you are overdue and have not been in contact, he or she should get in touch with the Coast Guard. n Be aware of activities, such as setting off fireworks, that can look like an emergency from a distance. Don’t do them. Every time the Coast Guard launches, that’s one less asset available for a real emergency. n Contact your local USCG Auxiliary and have your boat’s safety gear inspected. To learn more, visit cgaux.org. — H.S.
After a long pause, he laughs and adds, “More than anything, I didn’t want to disappoint my dad. Plus, I knew I couldn’t go on in my career knowing that I couldn’t do it.” So Cotturone did it. And he says he couldn’t wait for the day he could exchange the Groundhog Day atmosphere of training for real-world scenarios.
Duty calls In 2005, the real world was waiting with a vengeance at the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station in Kodiak. But before he could face it, Cotturone had to attend a three-week Emergency Medical Technician course. “We had a six-month EMT college course jammed down our throats in three weeks,” he recalls. “That was the hardest thing for me, because I couldn’t just muscle through it. I had to pass the test.” While at the air station, Cotturone also had to learn all the helicopter’s systems and limits and participate in a check-ride to become Basic Airman Qualified. He also had to do a separate rescue-swimmer check-ride. The entire process took six weeks; then he could embark on his official four-year tour in Kodiak. Cotturone admits he wasn’t happy when, in 2009, he and his family were transferred to Traverse City, Michigan. “My wife and I kind of came here kicking and screaming,” he acknowledges. “We were done with snow and wanted somewhere warm. Then we fell in love as soon as we parked the car! It’s another world here; it’s like nowhere we’ve ever been. “I grew up in a place with salt water that was dirty brown,” he continues. “Here it’s so clear, like the Caribbean. It’s not sticky, it’s not salty, there are sandy beaches, and the people are amazing. My parents are always blown away when they visit here. Everyone’s so nice.” During the typical Great Lakes summer, Cotturone will spend six to 10 hours of every 40-hour work week airborne, participating in a search. He says flare sightings and uncorrelated maydays are the two most common reasons for initiating searches. “With the flares, it’s usually people on the beach who contact us first,” he explains. “With the maydays, it’s a call that’s received, but the person hung up and didn’t respond to further attempts at contact. It’s like calling 911 and then hanging up; a sheriff is going to come to your front door. We can tell what tower the call hit first, which helps us figure out where to look.” In most cases, the mysterious flares and maydays are not emergencies. Sometimes the flares are fireworks, and sometimes the maydays are the result of kids playing around with their parents’ radios. But, Cotturone says, the U.S. Coast Guard treats every scenario as if it’s a real emergency. To date, he has participated in seven Lake Michigan rescues that required airlifts, including requested medical
The Voice of the Great Lakes: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior