The ferocious will to live

by Petty Officer Renee C. Aiello

In the early morning hours of June 6, 2008, Steven Conway, a retired Coast Guard commander, assessed his situation. Moments before everything was going so very right, and now everything was going so very wrong. Moments ago he was enjoying the company of his fellow crewmembers.  Now four of his fellow crewmembers were bobbing alongside Conway in the Gulf of Mexico, and a sixth crewmember was missing.  The events that transpired over the following days formed an equation like none other:

* Twenty-six hours at sea testing the mind, body and soul of five men
* Five men with a ferocious will to live
* Four lifejackets providing the buoyancy needed to give these men hope
* One man with the ability to confidently lead his fellow sailors through the ensuing peril and fear of the unknown

The afternoon prior, Conway, along with fellow sailing safety instructor Roger Stone, and students Joe Savana, Ross Busby, Travis Wright and Steven Guy, set out to participate in the Veracruz Regatta onboard the Texas A&M sailboat Cynthia Woods.  The crew was one of several sailing from Galveston, Texas, to Veracruz, Mexico, in what was supposed to be a routine race to promote the sport of sailing.  After a full day of sailing, complimented by fair seas, the late night hours of June 5 brought peril which tested the human strength and endurance of these six sailors.   Conway, who is currently the director of computing and information services at Texas A&M University at Galveston, said there was nothing out of the ordinary about the first day of the race.

“It felt like a regular day to me,” said Conway.

In this photo by the U.S. Coast Guard, Steve Conway (right), a retired Coast Guard commander, and Chief Petty Officer Albert Shannon (left), an Air Station Houston rescue swimmer, meet for the first time following the Cynthia Woods rescue.

In this photo by the U.S. Coast Guard, Steve Conway (right), a retired Coast Guard commander, and Chief Petty Officer Albert Shannon (left), an Air Station Houston rescue swimmer, meet for the first time following the Cynthia Woods rescue.

Conway’s wife, Mary, had a different feeling about race day.  She described a lurking feeling of unease while driving her husband to the start of the race.  She recalls kissing him goodbye, and having this overwhelming feeling of needing to wrap her arms around Conway one last time.

“That feeling of unease was just so strong,” said Mary Conway.

The crew of six set sail on June 5, prepared to enjoy the camaraderie that accompanies these types of sailboat races.  As the first day of the race drew to a close, Conway was at the end of an 8 p.m. to 12 a.m. watch.  At approximately 11:30 p.m., June 5, Conway said he saw a white interior cabin light come on and he heard Stone yell from below deck, “We are taking on water.  Start the engine.”

“Then he yelled up, ‘dowse the sails,'” said Conway.

The following sequence of events would be life-altering for the crew of the Cynthia Woods.  The keel had apparently separated from the sailboat, said Conway.  The sailboat then suddenly rolled 90-degrees onto its side, and finally came to rest flat down on the water, said Conway.

Thirty-seconds later the Cynthia Woods had capsized, said Conway.

“There was this really surreal experience of things not being how they were supposed to be,” said Conway, a 1975 Coast Guard Academy graduate.

Of the six crewmembers, Savana, Busby and Conway were above deck, and Stone, Wright and Guy were below deck.  One by one, Savana, Busby, Conway, Wright and Guy surfaced.  The following moments were tense, as these five sailors waited for Stone to surface.

“We looked and watched, and Roger never surfaced,” said Conway.

Conway would later discover that Stone had physically pushed Wright and Guy, both of whom where below deck with Stone, from the capsizing sailboat.

“He was a selfless person.  He would never have gone out first,” said Conway.

At this instant, Conway knew that in order for the five remaining crewmembers to survive he would have to draw upon his 21-years of service in the Coast Guard to see them all through the following hours.  At this point, the sailboat was almost completely submerged, said Conway.  The only parts slightly visible were the bottom of the hull and rudder.

Instinctively, Conway knew he and the crew had two options:  either all five crewmembers stay with the sailboat or all five crewmembers stay together.  Conway and fellow crewmember Guy attempted to swim back to the sailboat to retrieve the horse collar, which is a life saving float, but the pair were unable to retrieve it, said Conway.

Once Conway and Guy swam back to the other three crewmembers, Conway assessed the situation.  He decided it would be most beneficial if the five men stayed together, instead of attempting to stay with the submerged sailboat.  Between the five men, they had four lifejackets, said Conway.  Guy was the only crewmember without a lifejacket.  Now was the time for Conway to put his Coast Guard seamanship and survival skills to work.

“Those things just come back.  All that stuff you did in training, it really works.  It helped not just me, but I shared it with the students,” said Conway.

It was decided that Guy would be tethered by Conway’s belt between Conway and a third student, who was wearing a lifejacket, said Conway.  The remaining two also tethered themselves to one another using a safety harness, said Conway.  They did everything they could to prevent separation, he said.

The nights proved to be as challenging as the daylight hours, said Conway.

“The dark is harder psychologically,” he said.

Under the cover of darkness, these five men constantly battled the turbulent surf.  Every three to five minutes, said Conway, the men were choking on salt water.  As 5-foot waves crashed over their heads, the men struggled to expel the salt water they were slowly ingesting, said Conway.

The daylight hours provided a different set of challenges.  Not only did the men have to contend with dehydration and sunburned skin, but their presence had attracted the attention of underwater creatures, said Conway.

On Saturday, June 6, the men started feeling something bump their legs.  Conway described a 4-foot fish circling the group for the better part of four hours.  He identified it as a Ling fish, a game fish common to this area.  By this time on June 6, Coast Guard rescue crews were out in full-force searching for the Cynthia Woods.

Even though Coast Guard crews were diligently searching, Conway knew it would take an expert eye and numerous search and rescue passes to pin-point their exact location. The five men watched with heavy hearts in the late morning hours of June 6, as a Falcon jet crew made three search passes over the area of the capsized sailboat, said Conway.
By this point, the five men had settled into various roles within the group.  Conway told stories to lighten the mood, Ross was the official time keeper, Guy was the morale booster, Savana was the comedian and Wright was the student skipper.  Their fierce will to survive helped these men surge forward, said Conway.

“These four students did an outstanding job in an extraordinary situation.  They didn’t panic, they kept their wits about them and once they got to the surface, they stayed positive,” said Conway.

Throughout the day on June 6, Conway noticed the CGC Manowar off in the distance completing a search pattern and a commercial shrimp boat, but both were too far away to see the five men floating in the Gulf of Mexico.

The five men mentally prepared themselves for yet another night in the water on June 6.  Though mentally and physically drained, these men still exhibited a strong will to survive, and Conway.

At approximately 1 a.m. on Sunday, June 7, Conway’s attention was turned toward the sky.  He heard the unmistakable hum of an HH-65C Dolphin helicopter.  To attract the helicopter’s crew attention, Conway simply beamed light from the $2 flashlight affixed to his lifejacket.  The helicopter hovered, for what seemed like an eternity, above the five men, said Conway.

The rescue helicopter crew consisting of Lt. Justo Rivera and Lt. Gary Allen, Chief Petty Officer Albert Shannon, a Coast Guard rescue swimmer, and flight mechanic Petty Officer Louis Bishop, completed several search patterns within close proximity of the five men.  Bishop was the first to spot the beam from Conway’s flashlight, said Shannon.  He reported the unusual light to the pilots and they fixed their position on that beam.  The helicopter was now holding steady in a 50-to-100-foot hover above the five men, he said.  As the crew painstakingly scanned the water through night vision goggles, Rivera exclaimed, “those are life jackets,” said Shannon.

“As soon as we saw the lights, I turned around and changed out of my flight suit.  Everybody in the crew transformed from search mode to rescue mode,” said Shannon.

After 26 hours at sea, enduring the loss of a fellow crewmember and over-exposure to the harsh elements, one-by-one the five men were hoisted to the safety of an Air Station Houston helicopter.

“The odds were definitely stacked against them.  They did everything right.  They did everything by the book.  I definitely think the five of those guys are alive because of Steve Conway and his training,” said Shannon.

Shannon, who has dedicated 20 years of service to the Coast Guard, said this will be one of his most memorable cases.

“When you are searching out there you have to remember that these people have families and loved ones.  I’m reminded of that with this case when Mary Conway wrapped her arms around me and cried, thanking me for saving her husband,” said Shannon.

Dr. R. Bowen Loftin, vice president and CEO of Texas A&M University at Galveston, was highly involved on the university’s end with this particular case.  He is familiar with the skills and abilities of all the men that were onboard the Cynthia Woods at the time it capsized.

“Steve is a seasoned Coast Guard officer and from that he knows exactly what the Coast Guard’s rescue operations are like.  Steve is also an excellent sailor and an excellent leader for our young people here,” he said.  “Texas A&M is known worldwide for its faculty, staff and graduates putting others first.  We call that selfless service.  Steve, in this event, put himself behind the students.  He embodies the spirit of Texas A&M,” said Loftin.

Now that Conway has settled back into the routine of life, he has had time to reflect on the events of that catastrophic weekend, said Conway.  He’s taken a slightly different approach to dealing with life’s little pleasures.

“I’ve decided I’m going to savor life more.  Life is wonderful.  The only difference now is I’m going to take a little extra minute to enjoy it,” said Conway.

As for the loss of his friend and fellow sailing instructor, he will feel that void for a long time to come, said Conway.

“Roger Stone was a good sailor, humble, quiet, classic salt-of-the-earth person.  A good solid guy.  He has an amazing family and they reflect Roger,” said Conway.

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