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Water swamps boat before pre-dawn rescue

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Shipwreck survivor Jacob Van Ommen (center) with rescuers (l-r) Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class John Fuller, Petty Officer 2nd Class Brittany Wygand, Petty Officer 1st Class Andrea Cobb, Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Luker, Lt. j.g. Bradley Milliken and Capt. Kevin Carroll. The group posed for this photo during an event on Coast Guard Base Portsmouth, Va., Aug. 16. Van Ommen met with the Coast Guard personnel who helped rescue him when his sailboat ran aground and sank near Myrtle Island, Virginia, June 23.

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By Toby Tate
Correspondent

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Imagine being out to sea alone on a 30-foot boat and waking with a jolt at 4 a.m. when your vessel suddenly runs aground in pitch-black darkness.

That was the scenario experienced by 80-year-old Jacob "Jack" Van Ommen on June 24 as he was leaving Portsmouth, Va., on his way to a boat show at Mystic Seaport, Conn.

"I had cleared the lower Eastern Seaboard peninsula sailing N.E. and felt safe to set the alarm and take a one hour nap," Van Ommen wrote on his blog.

Van Ommen's boat was near Mink Island off the Va. coast when he felt the boat jerk him awake. By the time he discovered the problem, it was already too late.

"When I saw the water coming in, at first slowly, but then faster, I figured the boat would be lost," Van Ommen told The Daily Advance. "And that is when I called the mayday in and set off the alarm on the De Lorme In Reach satellite tracker."

Already exhausted, Van Ommen managed to drag his life raft from below deck and deploy it as the water reached knee-high level. Twenty minutes later, he heard the rotating blades of an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter from the U.S. Coast Guard base in Elizabeth City.

The incident happened so quickly, Van Ommen was able to salvage a few things, including the ship's log—unfortunately, he didn't have time to find his pants.

"All that I wore was a t-shirt, wool sweater and my under shorts and boat shoes," he said.

Van Ommen recently had a chance to personally thank the crew of the helicopter at a press conference held by the Coast Guard on Aug. 16 in Portsmouth and attended by several Hampton Roads TV news channels.

Included in that meeting was Petty Officer 2nd Class Brittany Wygand, who received the distress call, and Petty Officer 3rd Class John Fuller, the rescue swimmer who brought Van Ommen in.

“I remember that it was very early in the morning. We got a call saying ‘Mayday’ over the radio,” Wygand told WAVY TV10.

Fuller said he was amazed and inspired to rescue someone as interesting as Van Ommen.

“He’s an 80-year-old man who’s been sailing all over the world these past few years. He’s seen so many things in his life,” Fuller said.

Van Ommen, originally from Holland, has been sailing since he was a teen. He traveled all over Europe until the of age 19, when he moved to the U.S. and was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1961. Although he still travels the world, his homeport is in Gig Harbor, Washington.

But this is not the first time Van Ommen has lost a boat—the first time was on Nov. 16, 2013, during an around-the-world trip which ended on the island of Tago Mago, off the coast of Spain, with his boat smashed and Van Ommen climbing treacherous, slippery rocks to safety. This shipwreck, strangely enough, also happened at 4 a.m.

Not surprisingly, Van Ommen is already rebuilding his boat, The Fleetwood.

"'Fleetwood' because I have been in the wood business from age 17," he said. "Plywood remains my preference, for weight, aesthetics, strength and a lot simpler to repair than fiberglass. Also my first car I owned was a Chevrolet Fleetline."

Even at 80, and with a compressed spine caused by a nasty fall during a storm, Van Ommen said he has no intention of slowing down.

"I will keep on sailing until I drop," he said. "It is the least expensive way for me to have a roof over my head and at the same time I can move around and see more beautiful places and meet more interesting people. I do not plan very far ahead."

He also has some advice for other, younger would-be boaters.

"Curiosity is what drives me, the sailing is fun but it is more important as an inexpensive way to see the world," he said. "You need to be properly prepared and know something about sailing and navigation and start with a small boat. Keep it simple. The sailors I have seen stuck forever in the same spots are the ones with too big a boat with too many delicate conveniences that keep breaking down and are too difficult to handle when the couples grow older."

Van Ommen, who has been married once and whose granddaughter recently returned from deployment aboard the USS George H.W. Bush, said that his faith is what keeps him afloat and gives him the strength to go on.

"God seems to take care of me and every apparent setback turns into another positive outcome," he said. "My faith is the most important assist in my life. The main thing I find in my faith is gratitude for all that the Creator provides for free and the promise of a better life in the resurrection. I therefore also have no fear of death."

Van Ommen wrote about his amazing life beginning as a child during WWII through his exploits as a boater, in "Soloman," a memoir available in both English and Dutch from Amazon in eBook and paperback.

His first book, "The Mastmaker's Daughters," reveals the life of his mother, gleaned from her own journals. A survivor of the Nazi concentration camps in WWII, she was given over to the Germans by her own cousin, a Nazi sympathizer.

Van Ommen's blog, which features his ongoing adventures, can be found at www.cometosea.us .

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