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Long Island boat captains honored for rescues at sea

Lester J. Trafford III of Hampton Bays, a

Lester J. Trafford III of Hampton Bays, a captain for Sea Tow service, received the Carnegie Medal for Acts of Extraordinary Civilian Heroism for a daytime rescue at the Shinnecock Inlet on May 12, 2013. This photo taken Saturday, July 4, 2015. Credit: Veronique Louis

Two Long Island boat captains received awards for daring rescues at sea in which they risked their lives to save others.

Greenport fishing boat captain Sidney Smith III last month received the Meritorious Public Service Award from the U.S. Coast Guard for a rescue on the night of Oct. 22, 2014, off the coast of Port Judith, Rhode Island.

And Lester J. Trafford III of Hampton Bays, a captain for the Sea Tow service, received the Carnegie Medal for Acts of Extraordinary Civilian Heroism for a daytime rescue at the Shinnecock Inlet on May 12, 2013.

According to the citation, Smith responded quickly after hearing a mayday call from the crew of the tugboat Karen Jean, which reported it had taken on an "unmanageable" amount of water.

In his commercial fishing trawler, the Merit, Smith, 60, and his crew plowed 4 miles through gale-force winds, rough seas and driving rain, the Coast Guard said, with visibility down to "a few hundred yards."

Finding the Karen Jean, Smith came through a debris field of lines, cables and entanglements before spotting a life raft with the crew on board.

"With the winds howling at 50 knots, he directed his crew to set up rescue lines on the port side as he steered the Merit down-swell to the life raft and expertly maintained his vessel's position as the life raft drifted down onto the Merit," the citation says.

A rescue line

From that position, three crew members of the Karen Jean were able to climb aboard the Merit. But a final survivor remained in the water, "clinging to the now-empty life raft and looking dangerously fatigued."

Smith threw a rescue line, but the man was too exhausted to climb aboard.

"Captain Smith therefore leaned dangerously over the gunwale, grabbed the survivor by the shirt and pulled him aboard," the citation reads. Smith and the crew treated the men for hypothermia, and all four survived.

Smith, reached on Friday, said of the award, "It was pretty nice to be recognized."

He remembered the night he heard the call from the sinking boat's captain. "You could tell in his voice it was serious. You just had to go. You want somebody to come get you when you're in trouble. It was a bad, bad night."

He said luck was on his side. "Every attempt I made to do something worked, and I've never done anything like that before in my life," he said.

He said he shook for two weeks after the rescue, thinking about the chances he took to save the four men. "The thought came through my head that I could have killed everybody," he said. But "once I had my hands on him, I was OK," he said of the last man aboard.

Risked his life

On May 12, 2013, Trafford heard over his radio that a 45-foot commercial fishing boat, Pauline Four, had capsized in the waters just outside Shinnecock Inlet. Trafford, 55, left his mooring in Shinnecock Bay and sped to the inlet, where steady and gusting winds created 5-foot seas with waves reaching 9 feet breaking in the inlet in a strong ebb current.

"Although first-responding boats turned back, Trafford proceeded through the inlet and, spotting the wreckage of the fishing boat, proceeded toward it," according to the citation.

Trafford searched for survivors in the debris field before he was directed to crew member Scott Finne's position by a police helicopter. Finne was clinging to a rubber buoy.

"Trafford positioned his boat about 18 feet from [Finne] and then drew him to the boat by means of a life ring attached to a line," the citation says. "The men returned to the wreckage and looked for [fishing boat captain Stian] Stiansen until they were relieved by a Coast Guard vessel."

Stiansen drowned and Finne was treated at a hospital for hypothermia.

The Carnegie medal is given to "those who risk their lives to an extraordinary degree while saving or attempting to save the lives of others."

Trafford recalled conditions on the water that day as "nasty; it was pretty rough. The outgoing tide against the waves, it was standing them up pretty good against the inlet there."

Despite those conditions, he said, he never thought twice about going through the inlet. "I know most of those fishermen all my life," he said. "When I heard it was one of them, it was no holding back. I didn't care."

He knew Stiansen. "I just hated to lose him," he said.

He also credited Sea Tow's fleet of boats, including the 24-footer he piloted that day.

"I got good boats and I'm pretty confident," he said. The 24-footer is "the smallest boat in the fleet, but we built her ourselves. She's pretty tough."

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