A Shelburne County man who risked his life during a rescue at sea has been honoured by the province with a Medal of Bravery.
Leading Seaman Eric Nickerson of the Canadian Coast Guard was one of four Nova Scotians recognized for their heroic efforts. The medals were presented Nov. 8 in Halifax.
Nickerson was a crewmember on a coast guard vessel that on Nov. 19 last year was tasked with helping to rescue a man from a 32-foot sailboat with a broken mainsail boom that was taking on water in rough seas about 50 miles offshore.
A Cormorant helicopter also was tasked – along with a Hercules aircraft and another vessel – but the conditions were deemed too dangerous for a helicopter rescue.
“We had roughly 50 to 60 knots of wind and 30-foot seas,” Nickerson said.
The 68-year-old man on the sailboat didn’t have the proper safety gear so the coast guard crew tossed him a survival suit.
“He was a large man, 350 pounds, over six feet,” Nickerson said. “He couldn’t fit in our largest survival suit we had.”
Nickerson asked his commanding officer for permission to jump from the coast guard ship onto the sailboat.
“I was denied the first request and then after we saw that we weren’t going to be able to execute the rescue any other way – because the SAR techs couldn’t get down – he decided to grant me permission to jump,” Nickerson recalled. “I jumped, got on board (the sailboat). I helped the gentleman get the survival suit on, but it still would not zip up the whole way.”
The man was scared and wouldn’t move, Nickerson said. Meanwhile, the boat was taking on water and darkness was approaching.
They brought a life raft alongside the sailboat with the intention of using it to get the man, along with Nickerson, to the coast guard vessel. A wave, however, knocked the man into the water. Nickerson jumped in to get him.
“Of course he’s huge,” Nickerson said. “I’m 175 pounds. He’s 350. He’s hauling me under ... I have to try to convince him that I can do the rescue, that we have support around us: ‘Cooperate with me, just let me swim you through the breakers.’”
Nickerson tried to reassure the man, telling him he wouldn’t let him go. The man was lifted onto the coast guard vessel, exhausted but okay. The crew picked up Nickerson and eventually headed home.
The man reportedly had been on his way to Florida when he ran into trouble. He said he had lived aboard his sailboat for 23 years, having spent the previous winter in Halifax harbour, Nickerson recalled.
Nickerson said he never heard from the man again.
Asked for his thoughts on receiving a medal for his bravery, Nickerson – who has been with the coast guard for 25 years – said he’s appreciative but that he feels he was just doing his job.
The Medal of Bravery is awarded each year to people who have risked their life protecting the life or property of others.
About the other recipients who were awarded the medal:
• Shane and Liam Bernard, both of Waycobah, Inverness Co., who are not related, helped passengers involved in a motor vehicle accident. The driver was pinned inside the vehicle with flames at his feet. Despite the risk, the men worked to free the driver and managed to save him before the vehicle became engulfed in flames.
• Travis Wolfe, of Port Joli, Queens Co., heard an explosion at his elderly neighbour's house and immediately made his way to the house. He entered the house and despite the thick black smoke, he was able to find one of his elderly neighbours by feel. Wolfe carried her outside and managed to get a short distance from the house to safety.