ABOARD USS CHAMPION, At Sea (NNS) -- For the second time in six months, the crew of USS Champion (MCM 4) answered a distress call, but this time this time it was to rescue one their own: a World War II veteran and former Navy quartermaster who was the master of a vessel adrift.
The incident occurred when Moonlighter, a 32-foot pleasure trawler, lost its only engine approximately 40 nautical miles off the coast of Central America. The master was conserving battery power when he heard Champion and USS Pioneer (MCM 9) communicating over VHF bridge-to-bridge. He immediately began hailing both warships.
"We were transiting en route from Balboa, Panama, to Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala," said Lt. j.g. Grayson Burnette, the officer-of-the-deck when the call came in. "Once we verified his position, we immediately altered course and proceeded at best speed for a rendezvous."
As Champion headed to answer the distress call, the ship's commanding officer, Lt. Cmdr. Phil Roos, discussed the situation and intentions with the trawler's master, who reported contacts with several fishing and merchant vessels over the past day, but none had answered.
"He was utterly shocked and relieved to have finally hailed someone," said Roos. "As an old U.S. Navy veteran, he was delighted that the U.S. Navy was coming to his aid."
By the time Moonlighter was within visual range, night had fallen, and the seas were turbulent, cresting at six-to-seven feet. Aided by radar, Champion and Pioneer closed the distance to within half-a-mile and found Moonlighter rolling heavily in the rough of the seas.
Undeterred, Champion launched their rigid-hulled inflatable boat and sent over the ship's search and rescue swimmer, Signalman 1st Class (SW) Rene Trevino, and boat engineer, Engineman 1st Class (SW) Donald Neuville, in the hopes of assisting the master with his engine trouble. The task wasn't easy.
"The boat was rocking pretty bad," Neuville explained. "There was a lot of gear adrift in the cabin and the master was sitting at a table hanging on for dear life."
After 30 minutes or so, Neuville got the engine running, but not for long. Shortly after the vessel got underway and headed for shore, the master radioed more engine trouble.
"It was obvious that Moonlighter was in dire need of repair and would not make it to shore alone. At this point, we made the call to take the vessel under tow," said Roos. "During our rescue this past May, we took a sailboat under tow in rough seas as well, but this was different. It was midnight, and the combination of the rough seas and darkness made it an entirely different situation."
Two experienced members of the crew, Trevino and Mineman 2nd Class Edward Sandoval, were sent to aid in passing the towline.
After taking the vessel in tow, Moonlighter's master was transferred to Champion for food, medical attention and some much needed rest. And, after towing the vessel for more than 100 miles, Moonlighter was ultimately passed to the Nicaraguan Coast Guard and a commercial tug for towing to the nearest repair facility.
Champion was steaming in company of Pioneer. The two mine countermeasure ships left their home port of Ingleside, Texas, in October on a six-month deployment to the Eastern Pacific.
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