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Miracle at sea: Local man helps save two in Costa Rica

Photo by Tori Boone

Photo by Tori Boone

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Other than a handful of expeditions to Lake Lanier and a neighborhood swim team, John David Sinclair's childhood in Gwinnett County never pointed toward a life at sea.

But the 35-year-old adventurer, whose jaunt as a deckhand on a fishing boat in Alaska turned into a career as a ship's captain, was in the right place earlier this month to lead a rescue at sea.

"David can do anything," proud father John Sinclair said.

Sinclair is the captain of the National Geographic Sea Lion, a 150-foot-long expedition ship, which carries up to 60 passengers on cruises to locations from Alaska to Panama.

On Feb. 9, during a trip along the coast of the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica, the ship's third mate spied something in the water at 1 a.m. Sensing something was amiss, the mate picked up his binoculars and saw a man treading water in the middle of the ocean.

When Sinclair came to the deck minutes later, crew members heard another man shouting somewhere outside the ship's spotlight.

The two men -- father and son, who had been hoping for rescue after their boat capsized three days before -- were brought on board less than 30 minutes later, hypothermic, dehydrated and sunburned but otherwise OK.

When Sinclair learned there had been two more men on the boat with them, he rang the alarm bell and tried to contact the Costa Rican Coast Guard, eventually reaching the Panamanian Coast Guard, who had to relay the message.

"It was pretty incredible. It was pretty emotional," said Sinclair, at home for a six-week hiatus in between stints on his ship. The rescued father and son, Cesar Rojas and Ernie Gomez, had already said their goodbyes, with Rojas handing over his life vest and encouraging his son to live on for him, according to Costa Rican newspaper reports.

With a degree in ecology and only the monthly "man overboard" drills to ready him for the event, Sinclair devised a plan to search the dark waters for the other victims -- who had drifted miles from where the Costa Rican Coast Guard had conducted a search the day before.

One man, Santos Espinoza, was found dead, while the fourth, Daniel Valverde was never found. Valverde -- a teenager -- had reportedly left the group in an attempt to swim to shore.

Nearly five hours after the first men were spotted, before the sun came up that Tuesday, the Coast Guard released the Sea Lion, and the ship's course was changed to allow them to take the victims to a hospital.

"It's so amazing for me to think about how unlikely it was," Sinclair said, noting the short span of light from the ship that allowed the third mate to spot the first man in the water. "It's a miraculous thing."

For Sinclair, helping out a fellow seafarer is part of the adventure.

With a defibrillator and a doctor on board, he has responded to a heart attack on a sailboat in Mexico, offered a portable pump to help a fishing boat taking on water and used a boat to tow a yacht that was drifting toward rocks.

"It's part of working on the water," the Central Gwinnett grad said. "You have an obligation to help out."