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'Angels' accept great risks to protect boaters

Rescue workers leap, swim and dive to save injured powerboat racers.


© St. Petersburg Times, published November 19, 2000

ST. PETERSBURG -- They call them angels.

When a powerboat flips at 90 mph and the driver and throttleman are trapped upside down gasping for air, these saviors descend and lead the way to safety.

"So you want to know what it's like?" Jim Poplin asked. "There is only one way, and that is to see for yourself."

Poplin, director of the STARS Powerboat Safety and Rescue Team, has been a fixture on the national race scene for almost two decades. His divers, all fire/rescue and emergency medical personnel, have flown to all APBA offshore races for five years.

"The rescues are the easy part," Poplin said. "It is the work that we do before the race ever begins that takes all the time."

First, Poplin and his crew go through the registrations and look at the medical history of every crew. Then they inspect each boat and check the safety equipment.

But nothing prepares you for a rollover like the dunker test.

"I don't care how long you've been a scuba diver," rescue diver Clay Ingle said as he strapped me in the seat of the dunker tank. "When we flip it over and the water pours in, hold your nose or else you are going to get sick."

The tank is designed to show racers how it feels to be trapped inside a canopied boat. The mandatory test must be completed once a year. The STARS team teaches the BRACE method: B means brace for impact; R means reach for the exit; A means grab the air supply; C means calm down; E means exit.

"Got it?" Ingle said. "And don't forget to hold your nose."

Over went the simulator. I braced for impact, then reached for the exit release as the water poured in. I looked for my air supply -- got it -- then tried to calm down as water filled my nose.

"How'd you do," Ingle asked as I surfaced a minute later.

"Fine," I said. "I remembered everything you said ... almost."

I spent the rest of the afternoon sneezing and, later that night at dinner, suffered an embarrassing episode of post-dunking nasal drip.

Now I knew how a rolled driver felt, minus the cuts and bruises, of course. But what about the rescue divers, the real stars of offshore powerboat racing?

Poplin's crew typically flies two helicopters, dubbed Angel One and Angel Two, each one carrying two divers. An additional rescue diver is assigned to each of three pace boats. Dozens of local rescue and medical personnel, both volunteer and professional, round out the STARS Team.

"So you want to know what it is like to jump out of a helicopter?" Poplin asked. "Then we'll drop you anywhere you want."

Once again, Ingle was generous enough to share his equipment and expertise. The Tennessean has been with Poplin's team since 1983.

"Make sure you hold your mask and regulator with one hand," Ingle said. "And the tank with the other."

Rescue divers jump with small, 13-cubic-inch tanks, about one sixth the size of a standard recreational scuba tank, which are mounted at the waist below the belly button.

"You sure this is safe?" I asked.

"That is why I said hold the tank," he said.

Fully rigged in Ingle's rescue gear, the helicopter swooped low over the water at 120 mph straight for The Pier. Heart pounding in my chest, I hummed Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries, the helicopter music from my favorite movie, Apocalypse Now.

The chopper pilot flared off and hovered. Then came the order to go.

I grabbed the mask and scuba regulator with one hand and held the tank with the other, stepped off into thin air and dropped 25 feet to the water.

The impact surprised me. When I popped to the surface, I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, just like the time I got nailed by a soccer ball in that danger zone between the stomach and the knees.

"I can't remember," Ingle said later. "But did I tell you to cross your legs when you jumped."

"Nope, you didn't tell me to cross my legs," I said. "I would have remembered that."

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