OLD SAYBROOK — Imagine floating in the Connecticut River clinging to a 3-foot board — in April. The air temperature is in the 40s, the water temperature in the 30s, and you’ve been in the water for nearly 20 minutes.
As your hands and limbs stop cooperating due to the cold, the current sweeps you farther and farther away from the safety of your boat.
Now imagine your relief when the calvary arrives in the form of an experienced captain aboard a Sea Tow boat.
Capt. Tom Heinssen, of Sea Tow Central Connecticut, was the cavalry for a boater in just this predicament last April 15 and received a Sea Tow International Life Saving Award for his efforts during the organization’s Nov. 24 annual meeting, held virtually this year.
The call came in as a straightforward request to tow in a 35-foot boat stranded on the Connecticut River near Portland. Sea Tow is an organization that offers members marine assistance services, like AAA, but for boaters. In addition to his job as boat captain, Heinssen is the operations manager for the Old Saybrook franchise which he joined in 2007.
Heinssen remembers the call well. A boat became disabled during the night and the local fire department responded, taking the boat owner and his passengers off the boat to dry land.
“The next day the owner called Sea Tow to have his boat towed back to the marina.” Heinssen noted, “we respond when people call us. We are a 24-hour tow center, if they call at night and the weather’s OK and it’s safe to do so, we respond.” Because it was April, still pre-season for boating, not many people were on the river.
Heinssen offered to pick the boater up at a dock along the way, but the boater said “No, I’ll meet you out there.”
Heinssen, believing the man had a small boat to get to his bigger disabled boat, set out from Old Saybrook on the roughly hour-long ride upriver.
“Right in the last few minutes of the stretch, I see something in the water out of the corner of my left eye. I said to myself, ‘What’s a seal doing up this far?’ because that’s what it looked like from a distance with just his hand and head sticking up out of the water. He couldn’t get his hands above his head,” Heinssen remembered.
According to the state DEEP (“Sound Outlook” newsletter), “Hypothermia can occur in water as warm as 70 degrees, but under 50 degrees it takes only minutes to lose manual dexterity and become unable to rescue yourself.”
The victim had been in the water for an estimated 20 minutes by the time Heinssen spotted him.
“As I passed what I thought was a floating object, I could see hands, they were just barely out of the water, and I realized, ‘My God, that’s a person,’ so I immediately turned right back around. He was obviously freezing, he had a backpack and some clothes and had tried to paddle out to his boat from the shore on a 3-foot board, I think it’s called a wave board,” Heinssen said, adding that the victim had apparently thought he could paddle straight out across the river, but didn’t consider the strong current coming down river.
According to the Sea Tow Lifesaving Award description, the victim was not wearing a life preserver.
Heinssen hauled the man, who was in his 30s, out of the water. “I had some towels and explained to him ‘Look, you need to get out of those clothes immediately, get the blankets, and wrap yourself up.’ ” The victim was cold but uninjured and able to transfer back to his own disabled boat, where he went below deck to get dry and warm up a bit. Heinssen then towed the boat back to the marina.
Heinssen said this was his second such water rescue. In 2016, he pulled a person out of the water near Duck Island in Westbrook.
Aside from being a capable Sea Tow captain, Capt. Heinssen served 22 years with the State Police, seven years with the Old Lyme Town Police, and has been a member of the Old Saybrook Fire Department for about 10 years.
According to a press release and additional materials provided by the company, Sea Tow chose three captains to receive this year’s Life Saving Award out of more than 100 captains working for Sea Tow franchises across the country.
“We are grateful to have captains like Capt. Heinssen as part of the Sea Tow network,” said Sea Tow Services International CEO Joseph Frohnhoefer III. “We are honored to present him with a Life Saving Award for his efforts.”
Often victims and their rescuers meet after the incident for a nice photo opp, but this reunion happened a bit differently, Heinssen said. “The ironic thing was that at the end of the season, our paths crossed again when he ran out of fuel on his boat, we reminisced about it (the April water rescue) and he knew he was lucky that I saw him.”