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How a 5-person team saved a dying woman on a sailboat in the Pacific Ocean

Rescue Captain Beth Goudreau prepares to board a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter in San Francisco on April 16, 2021. | Source: Courtesy San Francisco Fire Department

Rescue Captain Beth Goudreau was about to sit down to a chicken parmesan dinner on a summer evening two years ago when the call came into her firehouse: The Coast Guard required a medic for a rescue mission. A person on a sailboat needed evacuation, Goudreau learned, though what was wrong and how serious the situation was remained unclear.

Goudreau had never been on a helicopter. But on that Aug. 16, 2021, night, the San Francisco firefighter would be asked to save a young woman’s life as propellers roared above her and the open waves of the Pacific Ocean surged below.

What followed was a harrowing rescue that involved dozens of people all working together to reach a young woman in critical condition floating in the middle of the sea. To mark the two-year anniversary of this event—and acknowledge the medal the San Francisco Fire Department awarded Goudreau on Tuesday—The Standard spoke to members of the team that traveled out over the ocean that night to reconstruct what happened.

The Journey

After the call came in, Goudreau, a 27-year fire department veteran, quickly filled two water bottles with coffee and took off for the Coast Guard station. 

That’s where she met the four-person crew she was about to join: two pilots, a mechanic and a rescue swimmer.

The sailboat, it turned out, was so far offshore that the helicopters from the San Francisco base couldn’t make the trip. So the Coast Guard had flown a longer-range Jayhawk helicopter, along with the four-person team, up from San Diego just for the mission.

To reach the distressed ship, the chopper would have to make it 380 miles out off the coast of Bodega Bay, the same distance between San Francisco and Los Angeles. 

“I knew it was going to be the longest flight I’d ever flown,” Lt. Commander Paul Junghans, the lead pilot, told The Standard. 

Junghans was an experienced flier, having logged over 100 search and rescue missions. But Joel Sprowls, who would be responsible for operating the machine that hoists patients onto the airborne helicopter, had just gotten qualified as a Coast Guard flight mechanic. It was his first-ever medical evacuation.

“Any time you hear you’re going to go out on a search and rescue, your heart starts beating a little faster and a little bit of adrenaline starts running through your body,” Sprowls told The Standard.

The crew donned thick jumpsuits, designed to stave off hypothermia in case the helicopter ended up in the water, and took off into the night.

Capt. Beth Goudreau of the San Francisco Fire Department poses for a portrait after receiving an award for her heroic efforts during the night of Aug. 16 and into the early morning of Aug. 17, 2021, from San Francisco Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson and other city officials in San Francisco on Tuesday. | Source: Justin Katigbak/The Standard

It was already past 9 p.m., and most of the team had been up since early that morning. Exhaustion was going to present a major challenge, Junghans knew. As they flew away from San Francisco and over open water, the crew spoke through the microphones in their flight helmets as they planned the rescue.

“This is going to be probably the longest case any of us has ever done,” Junghans recalls saying to the crew. “We need to make sure that we are staying sharp.”

The Jayhawk landed on a Coast Guard ship 280 miles west of San Francisco around 11:45 p.m. The vessel had been rerouted to rendezvous with the helicopter since the distance to the sailboat was so great that the aircraft needed to refuel. 

Anticipating the sleepless night, Goudreau had downed her coffee. But by the time the helicopter reached the ship, the caffeine, combined with the constant motion of the flight, was working a number on her stomach.

“I was feeling really sick,” Goudreau said. 

Before they had left San Francisco, a Coast Guard member stuffed two gallon-size zip-close bags into Goudreau’s jumpsuit without a word. Now, as the chopper took off again for the final leg of its journey, Goudreau realized just in time exactly what those bags were for.

“The rescue swimmer was telling the pilot, ‘Beth’s getting sick back here,’” Goudreau recalled. “They were all laughing and said, 'Welcome to air sickness. It’s normal, no shame.'”

Coast Guard members Tyler Holt, Paul Junghans, Liam Otto and Joel Sprowls pose for a photo at Coast Guard Air Station San Francisco on August 17, 2021.
Coast Guard members Tyler Holt, Paul Junghans, Liam Otto and Joel Sprowls pose for a photo at Coast Guard Air Station San Francisco on Aug. 17, 2021, after conducting a rescue mission 380 miles offshore. | Source: Courtesy Paul Junghans

The Rescue

As the Coast Guard ship faded from sight, the helicopter plunged into the black of the open horizon, land far from view.

“Since it was dark in the helicopter and dark where we were, I could clearly see the stars above us,” Sprowls recalled. 

“It was a very strange feeling being that far offshore. You’re just relying on the pilots to be good and efficient with the fuel. … We knew we were the only ones out there,” he added. “It’s a bit of a lonely feeling.”

Coast Guard Aviation Maintenance Technician Joel Sprowls poses in front of a helicopter at Palomar Medical Center Escondido on May 28, 2023. | Source: Courtesy Joel Sprowls

More than five hours after the team had taken off from San Francisco, a white light emerged from the darkness, bobbing atop the waves of the Pacific: the tip of the sailboat’s mast.

The helicopter made contact with the sailboat over the radio. Just two people were aboard: a father and his 23-year-old daughter. The young woman had ingested antifreeze—exactly how that happened remains unclear to this day—and was unconscious.

“It was heart-wrenching. You could hear his voice: ‘Take care of my daughter,’” Goudreau said. “You could tell he was terrified that she would die. She really was in that life-and-death critical condition.”

The members of the mission declined to share the names of the father or daughter, citing medical privacy restrictions.

It was impossible to send a stretcher down directly to the boat, as the mess of lines connected to the sails could easily tangle with the helicopter’s equipment. So Sprowls used the helicopter’s hoist to lower the rescue swimmer, Tyler Holt, into the open ocean about 50 feet from the boat. Holt swam over and climbed on board.

After accessing the situation, Holt decided the only way to get the woman safely onboard the aircraft was to bring her into the water so she could be hoisted up, clear of the ropes on the ship. They slipped a life jacket onto the unconscious patient, and Holt climbed back into the sea.

In the video of the incident, captured by Coast Guard cameras on the helicopter, the ship is buoyed up and down as the father tries to pass his unconscious daughter to Holt.

U.S. Coast Guard and San Francisco Fire Department personnel medevaced a woman from a sailboat approximately 380 miles west of Bodega Bay on Aug. 17, 2021. | Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard District 11

“Watching her dad lower her over the side … 350 miles offshore, pitch dark. He’s never met [Holt] before, totally trusting him with his daughter’s life. … It really hit me hard,” said Junghans, who at the time had an 11-month-old daughter at home. “I know how protective I am of my daughter, how hard that would be for me to let her go and just trust.”

Holt swam the woman clear of the sailboat, and Sprowls hoisted the two of them up into the chopper.

“She didn’t really look like she was alive,” Sprowls said. “She just didn’t have any emotion or expression on her face.”

“I was very concerned whether she would make it,” Goudreau said.

During the hourslong return flight, Goudreau battled turbulence and the tight quarters of the helicopter to support the patient’s life functions until they could get her to a hospital.

The crew reached San Francisco around 6 a.m., as dawn broke, and the young woman was rushed to General Hospital.

San Francisco Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson, left, stands next to Captain Beth Goudreau, right, as Goudreau receives an award for her heroic efforts during the night of Aug. 16, 2021. | Source: Justin Katigbak/The Standard

The Aftermath

After dropping the patient off at the hospital, Goudreau wasn’t sure whether she would survive. But the young woman was strong enough to leave General Hospital days later.

“It was amazing,” Goudreau said. “I was really surprised that she not only made a recovery, but a full recovery, like she did.”

Many involved with the mission credit Goudreau’s care with making the critical difference. On Tuesday, she received a Class A Medal from the San Francisco Fire Department recognizing her actions that night.

“Beth did an amazing job in an unfamiliar, unforgiving environment,” Junghans said. “She did critical medical care that I absolutely am convinced was the difference between life and death.”