Editorial: Fisherman owes life to Coast Guard -- and boots

John Aldridge, a commercial fisherman from Montauk, recovers John Aldridge, a commercial fisherman from Montauk, recovers in a Massachusetts hospital after being rescued at sea. He suffered dehydration, hypothermia and major sunburn from the nearly 12-hour ordeal. (July 24, 2013) Photo Credit: Patrick Whittle

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After treading water in the Atlantic Ocean for nearly 12 hours Wednesday, John Aldridge was rescued while wearing a T-shirt bearing the fitting words: "Blessing of the Fleet 2012."

That Montauk blessing each June both commemorates fishermen lost at sea and asks for protection from treacherous waters. The U.S. Coast Guard heeded that call with an expansive search for the commercial lobsterman that spanned 780 square miles, about two-thirds the total size of Nassau and Suffolk counties.

The odds were stacked against Aldridge when he fell from his 44-foot boat, the Anna Mary, in darkness sometime late Tuesday or early Wednesday. Unfortunately, Aldridge, who has spent 19 years fishing out of Montauk, wasn't wearing a life jacket when he went overboard. And he wasn't reported missing for three more hours because he was on watch by himself at the time.

Enter the Coast Guard. It mobilized crews from five states in addition to coordinating the commercial vessels that had joined the search. Ocean currents and wind conditions leave such rescue operations with a vast area to comb. But within eight hours, a Coast Guard rescue helicopter from Cape Cod located Aldridge as he clung to a buoy. A rescuer on a cable dropped down and pulled him to safety.

Using his boots to stay afloat, he had drifted about 40 miles from where he entered the water. Aldridge suffered hypothermia, dehydration and exposure, but was back in his family's Oakdale home Thursday.

The happy ending puts an exclamation point on the Coast Guard's experience and capacity for search and rescue operations.

Blessing of the fleet, indeed.

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