Story and photos by Judy Benson
Near sunset last Nov. 6, commercial fisherman John Genther of Madison was steering his boat back home after a day of catching whelk when he spotted a bright blue object about a half mile ahead in the water.
As he maneuvered closer, he realized it was a man wrapped in winter clothing, without a life preserver, clinging to the side of an overturned skiff in 55-degree water. Genther immediately recognized the signs of hypothermia and knew what to do, thanks to a first aid training he completed less than two weeks earlier.
“You saved someone’s life,” said Nick Lajoie, commander and chief of response for Coast Guard Sector Long Island Sound, speaking to Genther and a roomful of attendees at a ceremony on Feb. 8 honoring the heroic act. “It’s a big deal.”
In rescuing the man from the water and getting him the emergency care he needed, Genther applied what he had learned in a voluntary first aid and CPR course for fishermen he participated in on Oct. 24 hosted by Connecticut Sea Grant at UConn Avery Point. The course had been organized by Kyra Dwyer, Coast Guard commercial fishing vessel safety examiner, and taught by instructors from Fishing Partnership Support Services in New Bedford, Mass.
At the ceremony, Genther received a Meritorious Public Service Award from the Coast Guard, including a certificate describing details of the event.
“Mr. Genther’s quick actions in an unpredictable and dangerous situation demonstrated courage and a noble commitment to advancing the core Coast Guard mission of safety of life at sea,” the statement reads.
Also recognized during the ceremony were Dan Orchard and John Roberts, executive vice president and director of safety training, respectively, of Fishing Partnership, along with Dwyer and Nancy Balcom, associate director of Connecticut Sea Grant. While CT Sea Grant has sponsored fishermen safety training classes for many years, the first aid and CPR class was new in 2023, Balcom said.
“Working with Kyra and former USCG personnel and commercial fishermen now-trainers for Fishing Partnership Support Services enables us to offer regular opportunities for critical safety and survival training for fishermen free of charge,” said Balcom. “Preparation and practice are key factors in being able to remain calm while responding quickly and appropriately in stressful situations. John was able to keep his cool, apply what he’d learned and rescue someone from dire circumstances. He is truly a hero.”
In introducing Genther, Dwyer noted that while she often has to coax fishermen into taking safety classes, he had sought out this training on his own.
“And immediately after his heroic work, he reached out to the people who had given him the training to honor them,” she said.
After the ceremony, Genther recalled the circumstances of the rescue. The man he saved was in a small skiff fishing by himself when the weather turned rough. By the time Genther reached him, he was hardly moving and had become incoherent. Genther opted not to speak at the ceremony, but smiled warmly at the handshakes and words of congratulations he received.
“Had Mr. Genther not investigated the unknown object in the water, the victim’s chances of surviving a night on the water would have been slim,” the certificate said. “His actions are most heartily commended by the United States Coast Guard and are in keeping with the highest traditions of public service.”