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Smith Point Sea Rescue celebrates 50 years

Smith Point Rescue volunteers assist boaters in distress.

An average year brings about 60 distress calls. Storms, motors that won’t start, crab pots or pound nets tangled in motors can all lead to calls for help. (Courtesy Smith Point Sea Rescue)

June 2024

by Audrey T. Hingley, Contributing Columnist

Headshot of Robert Gwaltney

Robert Gwaltney (Photo by Audrey T. Hingley)

Nonprofit groups are often borne from need, and Reedville’s Smith Point Sea Rescue in Virginia’s Northern Neck is no exception.

In 1973, a father and his two young children were cruising the Little Wicomico River on their way toward the Chesapeake Bay when their boat began to leak and then became partially submerged. The family spent a chilly November night in the Chesapeake Bay near Reedville clinging to the bow, one of the few parts of the craft that was still above the water line, before eventually being rescued.

“There were no cellphones and not a lot of [boat] radios back then,” explains Robert Gwaltney, a duty captain with Smith Point Sea Rescue. Gwaltney says that following the rescue, a local physician, Dr. Robert E. Beatley, called the home of Wendell Haynie where the survivors had been taken, and ordered that a tub be filled with hot water for one of the children, whom he determined was suffering from hypothermia.

The incident led Beatley and his wife, Vera, along with residents Dr. Al Hurt, a dentist, and Haynie, to incorporate Sea Point Sea Rescue as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, all-volunteer organization in 1974. Of the initial group, Julie Pritchard, Smith Point Sea Rescue’s first secretary, and Dr. Hurt remain.

This year the organization celebrates its 50th anniversary as the last remaining all-volunteer sea rescue unit on the Chesapeake Bay. Its 39 members are all volunteers who never charge for their services.


Reedville, Va. (Courtesy Becky Haynie)

The rescue squad, based in Reedville, Va., covers the Bay and its tributaries, including both Virginia and Maryland waters. A fleet of six rescue crafts now boasts the group’s newest addition, Rescue III, a custom-built 43-foot all-weather rescue vessel that features state-of-the-art marine electronics.

Deployed just this past April, Rescue III contains an infrared camera and an augmented reality system permitting long-range identification of navigational aids and other objects. The group’s rescue vessels are staged in Cockrell Creek in Reedville, Smith Point Marina on the Little Wicomico River and Olverson’s Marina on the Yeocomico River.

The rescue group receives no regular monetary support from any state or governmental agency, although they say they have received a smattering of grants from a few foundations.

Operating funds primarily come from an annual mail solicitation, donations and fundraising events such as a Spring Oyster Roast each March. When needed, Reedville’s Smith Point Sea Rescue is dispatched through the Northumberland County Sheriff’s Office after distressed boaters initially call 911. Boaters can also contact them directly through VHF Channel 16, or an app called “I am responding” that Northumberland County subscribes to as yet another way to reach available rescue volunteers.

A captain and crew totaling three to four people per rescue vessel are assigned on a weekly calendar basis through a quarterly scheduling system. Volunteers, who must be available at all times during their scheduled time slots, are often self-described boaters, many of whom have been on the water all their lives.

An average year brings about 60 distress calls; in 2023 the rescue handled 69 calls. Storms, motors that won’t start, crab pots or pound nets in shallower areas that can tangle motors can all lead to calls for help.

Although most people think of the U.S. Coast Guard as the go-to entity when trouble at sea arises, Gwaltney points out that the nearest Coast Guard station is about 42 land miles away in Hudgins, adjacent to the Gwynn’s Island Bridge in Mathews County.

Virginia Marine Police also respond to distress calls. The closest U.S. Coast Guard air chopper rescue stations are in Elizabeth City, N.C., and Ocean City, Md.


Smith Point Sea Rescue volunteers in action, assisting boaters in distress.

Smith Point Sea Rescue volunteers in action, assisting boaters in distress. (Courtesy Smith Point Sea Rescue)

Smith Point Sea Rescue handles all kinds of rescue scenarios, says Michael “Quentin” Haynie, a former U.S. Navy member who “grew up on the water here,” ran tugboats and now works as a carpenter.

“A father and son brought a sailboat down here,” he says, recalling one 2015 rescue incident in which the team had to tow a boat that had run aground. “They sailed onto a sandbar. The Chesapeake Bay looks deep everywhere, but it’s not … it slopes until you get into the shipping channel. You get people who are new, novice boaters and things can go wrong.”

But even experienced boaters can fall victim to the Chesapeake Bay. Reedville resident Matt Smith, who owns a northern Virginia advertising agency and collects and uses antique wooden boats, had to call Smith Point Sea Rescue for help in July 2020.

“I know these waters very well,” he says, “There’s a submerged pile of rocks where the old Great Wicomico Lighthouse was removed a few years ago. The pile of rocks is still underwater and unmarked. I wasn’t thinking, was cutting a corner and ran right up on the rocks,” he remembers.

Smith was piloting Sweet Pea, his 1968 40-foot wooden trawler built in Reedville by his wife’s grandfather. He recalls that rescuers arrived in about 20 minutes.

“When the sea rescue people showed up, they deployed an interesting technique: because my boat is a trawler tug design, it has a huge area where it can be pulled. They had one boat pulling it back off the rocks, and a smaller boat was circling, creating a wake that made the boat rise and lower — it was brilliant. The boat was in full reverse, the wake was bumping it up and down — and it came free.”


Eight people found themselves in dangerously cold water off Virginia’s Northern Neck in 2023 after their 50-foot yacht began taking on water.

Eight people found themselves in dangerously cold water off Virginia’s Northern Neck in 2023 after their 50-foot yacht began taking on water. (Courtesy Smith Point Sea Rescue)

The organization’s most publicized rescue to date occurred in April 2023 when a call came from the sheriff’s office regarding a 50-foot yacht with eight passengers taking on water near Buoy 62 in the Bay. Quentin Haynie saved the messages on his cellphone, replaying the second call that came only minutes later: “The vessel in distress has sunk. Eight people are in the water.”

Gwaltney says “people in the water” calls are the most dreaded by volunteers. A crew including Gwaltney, Pete Ortiz, Bill Turville and Quentin Haynie sped out of Cockrell Creek “on wide open throttle” on Rescue I, a Sea Rescue 42-foot Provincial rescue craft. The water temperature was 49 degrees in early April, with 2- to 3-feet seas after a morning of strong winds. Life-jacketed people floating in the cold, rough waters were largely hidden by waves, Gwaltney remembers.

Rescue volunteers keep one of the rescued boaters warm.

Rescue volunteers keep one of the rescued boaters warm. (Courtesy Smith Point Sea Rescue)

Fortunately, one of the passengers had grabbed a handheld radio as the yacht sank. The radio operator was able to guide Rescue I to the group’s location. By this time, they had been in the water for nearly an hour and several were already suffering from hypothermia. The crew administered first aid as Rescue I rushed across the Bay to Ingram Bay Marina, where they were met by three Northumberland County rescue squads and EMS workers.

“That whole thing was like an act of God,” volunteer Dwight Hassler remembers. “There were two licensed Coast Guard captains on board; one was a retired Coast Guard member.”

It was later discovered that the yacht left earlier that morning from Virginia Beach with its new owners on board, en route to what was to be the yacht’s new home in New Jersey. Haynie says, “Seeing those people in the water for the first time … it can’t really be put into words.”


Having now reached its 50th year in existence, Smith Point Sea Rescue shows no signs of slowing down. Hassler admits the group’s largest challenge remains recruiting new volunteers.

Gwaltney says volunteer criteria are simple: “You must live within 20 minutes of our service area, be available, and be 18 years old or older. Volunteers also must have a Virginia Boater’s Safety Certification and a Boater Safety Education Certificate.” Having EMS training and CPR certification is also an asset.

Current president Pete Ortiz says rescue training includes “practical towing, basic seamanship and boat handling. Everybody should be trained as a backup sea captain.”

Brent Stansbury, one of the team’s newer members who joined in September 2023, says, “I originally came as an observer. It’s like on-the-job training.”

Stansbury says he’s been a part-time member of the Reedville community since his teenage years and moved to the area full-time last year. About 90% of the volunteers are retired or semi-retired and most say that giving back to the community was their motivation for joining Smith Point Sea Rescue.

For more information, visit smithpointsearescue.com.

In recognition of the group’s 50th anniversary, writer Ann Eichenmuller is penning a new book, There When Needed: A History of Smith Point Sea Rescue (High Tide Publications, 2024).