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A Heart Attack at Sea

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as told by Dave Bender

During a life-and-death situation on the high seas, the crew of the Jenny Lee received some help from above.

This was back in 2001, we had just finished up chartering season and my crew and I were doing what we call a “fun trip.” We go tuna fishing late in the season as kind of a gift to the guys for working all summer and fall, and we usually bring a couple of friends along for the ride too. I saw we had a nice weather window and I knew the fish were still in the Hudson Canyon, so five of us headed out at 2 a.m. one night to the East Elbow, 87 miles from Manasquan, [New Jersey], where I keep my 44-foot Henriques. At that time of year the Elbow is alive with squid boats and they stir up a lot of bait and the fish congregate there—longfin tuna, some yellowfin, and an abundance of large bluefins.

Photo by Magnus Manske

So we’re going all morning and we’re about a mile from the Elbow, the sun’s coming up, and one of the guys comes up top to tell me our buddy Mark’s not feeling well, which isn’t abnormal because Mark gets seasick. So we hit the Elbow and my friend Jimmy puts one line in the water and instantly hooks up with a big bluefin, we hadn’t even started chumming yet. It was going to be an amazing day fishing.

At this point someone opened the door to the saloon so we can get in and out easier, and I look in and see Mark leaning against the counter rubbing his chest. I asked him if he’s OK, and he says he’s got some chest pains. Not what you want to hear when you’re 90 miles from land. I look back at Jimmy, and he’s still fighting the fish. And at that point I started thinking maybe we should call the Coast Guard.

We had sat Mark down inside, but he couldn’t get comfortable. He was pale, man. Scared I’m sure—who wouldn’t be? He was 47. In good shape, didn’t smoke, in good health. A heart attack seemed out of place, but we were all starting to realize something was very, very wrong.

I got on the emergency channel and identified myself, and the East Moriches Coast Guard station immediately answers and asks what’s up. I tell them Mark is having chest pains. They told me to give him Mylanta to rule out agita, which we did. But as we’re talking they also say I should probably start heading home. I stay on the radio with them, and start making about 20 knots back to Jersey. That’s when Mark threw up the Mylanta. When I told that to the them they said, “Maintain your course. We’re sending a chopper.”

At this point everybody on the boat is trying to be as helpful as possible, trying to keep him comfortable, but it was very tense. He had a teenage son and another son who was 11. Mark always brings a video camera onboard with him, and he asked one of the guys to turn it on and tape him so he could say some words to the boys and his wife in case they didn’t see him again. To this day I don’t know what he said. I’m sure he said what a normal man would say in that situation.

It had now been about two hours since the whole thing started, and we were still in constant contact with the Coast Guard. Finally over the radio I hear a pilot crackle in, and he says he has us in sight. Now this has never happened to me before, and I assumed I would stop the boat for them to get someone on. But they explained to me to keep my course and keep a speed of 8 knots. They came down so close I could see the whites of the pilot’s eyes. It was pretty eerie, honestly. I remember the salt spray was unbelievable, it was everywhere.

The pilot told me to open my outriggers. He said he was going to put a rescue swimmer in the cockpit. He was concerned about my center ’rigger, that it might get in the way. I told him I’d saw it off right then if he told me to. He said he’d give it a shot first before that. They threw a rope on our boat and the rescue guy used that as a guide to get himself from the bird to the boat. He’s swinging everywhere, so wildly, and as he got close he actually banged his nuts right into the fighting chair. Really hard man, I’m telling ya. Even in that tense of a situation the whole crew winced like aaahhhh.

But he made it through. A real professional. They lowered down a basket and a rescue board too. The rescue swimmer went into the saloon and introduced himself to Mark, took his vital sings, and explained what they were going to do. Mark went in the basket, they took him up. The rescue swimmer goes back up. The helicopter takes off, and then it’s just us in the boat again, minus Mark. It was a really weird feeling. I was crying. Jimmy was crying. 

Finally I looked around the boat and said, “What do you want to do, go back home or go fishing?” The guys discussed it, and we decided Mark would want us to go fishing—I mean, the tuna were really snappin’! But we only stayed out for about three hours or so. And then the guilt set in. Honestly when we decided to stay out I think we were all in shock. We all kind of slowly realized we really needed to get home. 

We pulled in just as it got dark. The Coast Guard unit from Manasquan was there. The helicopter had left the rescue board on our boat and they wanted it back. The Coast Guard guy told us that Mark had flatlined on the gurney on the way to the hospital. He said they got his heart going again, but that our quick action saved his life. And I said back, “Sir, we didn’t save his life, you guys did.” 

Mark’s been on disability since the heart attack, but he’s doing well. He moved down to Florida a while back and has been there ever since. He’s living a good life down there, a real good life.

About the author: Dave Bender, 59, of Brielle, New Jersey, owns the 44-foot Henriques Jenny Lee. He recently sold his towing business, but keeps busy by coaching high school wrestling and college softball. He’s a good guy to have around in a pinch.

This article originally appeared in the February 2015 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.