History of Afras

The Roots of AFRAS:

The Association for Rescue at Sea (AFRAS) can trace its origins to a reception held at the US Embassy in London in the spring of 1976 for US Coast Guard’s Commandant at the time, Admiral Owen W. Siler. Vice Admiral Sir Peter Compston addressed the gathering, which also included Nicholas Ludington (then serving as the President for the UK Council for the Navy League of the United States and a charter member of AFRAS), on the role of the Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLI), and from that gathering the seed was planted for a complementary organization based in the United States. Captain Nigel Dixon and Ray Kipling of the RNLI were later engaged and all became receptive to the suggestion of setting up an American-based charity to support the RNLI. Patrick Howarth, the public affairs director of the RNLI took the lead along with Ray Kipling to work with a group of American executives living in London to set up such an organization.

The RNLI formally proposed the creation of the American/British Lifeboat Appeal committee in June 1976 and the first meeting was held in the American Embassy in London on 19 July 1976. It was chaired by VADM Sir Peter Compston and Americans attending included Captain John Fuechsel, USCG representative in London, Nicholas Ludington, and Professor W. Flexner. Mr. Geoffrey Connor of the London office of the New York law firm Cleary Gottlieb Steen and Hamilton, who would play a major role in the creation and early operations of AFRAS, plus the RNLI’s solicitors (attorneys) advised that since most of the funds raised by the appeal would come from bank accounts in the US, trustees including a president and a secretary/treasurer should be set up in the US in order to qualify for a US tax exemption. VADM Thomas Sargent III, USCG (ret.) was invited to serve as the president of the “American Friends of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, Inc.” Captain Nigel Dixon, the Director of the RNLI, invited William Wilkinson, Director of the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, VA and a long-time friend of the RNLI, and James Wegeler of Price Waterhouse to become trustees.

AFRAS as a Non-Profit, and the Origin of our Logo:

A meeting of the American/British Lifeboat Аppeal Committee was held in Poole on 29 September 1976, with VADM Sir Peter Compston in the chair. VADM Sargent accepted the invitation to become the president of the American Friends of the RNLI. This organization was being registered as a charity in the state of New York and the next step was to apply to the IRS for tax exempt status (it was the American Friends of the RNLI which eventually became AFRAS).Thus, a Certificate of Incorporation for “The Association for Rescue at Sea, Inc.” was filed with the New York Secretary of State on 10 November 1976 (with the IRS eventually granting tax-exempt status in 1977).

On 22 November 1976, the initial organizational meeting of AFRAS was held at the British-American Chamber of Commerce in New York City. Bill Wilkinson took the chair. Other directors present included Captain L.W. Goddu, USCG (ret.), Anthony W. G. Lord and James Wegeler. Also present were RNLI officials including Deputy Director,John Atterton, Public Relations Officer, Patrick Howarth, and Chief Inspector of Lifeboats, W.L. Gerard Dutton; plus Michael I. Frankel and Nora Ann Wallace of Cleary, Gottlieb. Nora Ann Wallace acted as secretary and took the minutes. VADM Thomas R. Sargent, USCG (ret.) was elected president and James Wegeler secretary/treasurer.

On 1 September 1977, Corporate Resolutions of AFRAS were presented in the state of New York, with VADM Sargent as president, Nick Ludington of the Navy League as honorary secretary, and Anthony W.G. Lord of the Crocker International Bank as honorary treasurer. Other trustees included Bruce Mitchell of Bank of America, C.J. Silas of Phillips Petroleum Co., Mr. Frank Goodhue of National City Bank, Captain L. W. Goddu, USCG (ret.) and William D. Wilkinson, director of the Mariners’ Museum. The AFRAS office was established in the home of James Wegeler in New York City. H. Nelson Kent, a graphics designer, produced the AFRAS logo, color scheme and type face. It was based on photos of an Arun Class lifeboat—at the time the newest boat in the RNLI fleet, and has served as our logo since its inception.

Initial Fundraising Efforts in Support of RNLI:

Meanwhile, the American/British Lifeboat Appeal Committee remained active in its efforts to raise funds, geared toward providing a life-boat to mark the many expressions of friendship and mutual goodwill between American and British peoples. It was decided to raise 200,000 pounds sterling to purchase a 44-foot Waveney class lifeboat, based on the design of the USCG 44 foot lifeboat and to be named The Spirit of ’76 in commemoration of the American Bicentennial.

A large fund-raising event in the UK was a reception in the Mansion House in the presence of American Ambassador Ann Armstrong, the Lord Mayor of London, the Sheriffs, the Committees and members of the RNLI. RNLI lifeboat crews were also brought in. Although there was not much overt fund-raising during the reception, there was a profit of some 1,000 pounds sterling and donations of 650 pounds. Other fund-raising efforts included a reception in the Banqueting Hall at Whitehall, attended by the president of the RNLI, the Duke of Kent, the Commandant of the USCG, Admiral Owen W. Siler (who would become a president of AFRAS after his retirement from the Coast Guard), and a pro-am golf tournament. Two former British Prime Ministers Harold Wilson and Edward Heath were persuaded to join the committee and both gave support and attended a couple meetings. Various American luminaries such as CBS’s anchor Walter Cronkite lent their names to the fund-raising effort. By the end of 1977, about 10% of the money needed to purchase a 44 foot lifeboat had been raised.

By May 1980, both AFRAS and the American/British Life Lifeboat Appeal faced up to the realization that they were far short of the 200,000 pounds sterling needed to purchase a Waveney class 44-foot lifeboat for the RNLI. The decision was made to purchase two smaller Atlantic 21 lifeboats. (The Atlantic class rigid-hull inflatable lifeboat (RHIB) had been developed at Atlantic College). The American/British Lifeboat Appeal became the “American Branch” of the RNLI and later renamed itself the “International Branch”. It continued to try to engage the US community living in the UK to support the RNLI. Some twenty years later, Michael Frankel, who was working with the Chairman of the Pall Corporation, Maurice Hardy, persuaded him to make a million dollar gift through AFRAS to the RNLI to be used in part for the purchase of a new lifeboat.


Genesis of The AFRAS Gold Medal for Heroism:

In 1982, the US Coast Guard was facing deep budget cuts and these were at the “sharp end” where, for instance, cuts in manpower and operating funds were forcing the Coast Guard to lay up cutters and to become concerned about its ability to respond to vessels in distress. The question arose “Can AFRAS stand into the breach and help the Coast Guard by raising funds and giving encouragement to others such as volunteer rescue squads and the USCG Auxiliary who performed the rescue function?” AFRAS treasurer, Dennis Bunyan noted that such an initiative fit well with the AFRAS proposal to award a “Gold Medal” to an enlisted member of the USCG for a heroic rescue.

The AFRAS Gold Medal for Heroism while making a rescue at sea became one of our major programs. The first Gold Medal had been awarded in 1982, but during the lean years for AFRAS between 1982 and its revival in 1987, no medal was awarded. There was much discussion on how and where to make the award—with some discussion about making it a joint ceremony with the US Navy League. Finally, the decision was made in 1990 to make the award in Washington in the US House of Representatives with the ceremony co-hosted by the then Chairman of the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Subcommittee, Congressman Walter Jones and with the USCG Commandant, other members of Congress, and other senior officials in attendance. Throughout the years of the AFRAS Awards Ceremony, Congressman Harold Coble has been one of our and the US Coast Guard’s most loyal supporters.

The Gold Medal is awarded to an enlisted member of the USCG who made a heroic rescue during the previous calendar year and was nominated by his command and through the USCG chain of command for the award. The recipient must still be on active duty with the Coast Guard at the time of the award presentation and the criteria generally include taking any prudent risks in a situation where the lives both the person(s) rescued as well as the rescuer were in peril. In subsequent years, the Gold Medal was renamed “The AFRAS Vice Admiral Thomas R. Sargent Gold Medal” in honor of our first Chairman and President.

Building Upon AFRAS’s Early Efforts:

In December 1987, David Chomeau, joined AFRAS and by 1988, had become the Executive Vice President. He brought great enthusiasm and leadership to AFRAS and helped us set off on new project initiatives. He later became AFRAS president and did much to revitalize the organization and its programs. Our founding Chairman, Vice Admiral Thomas R. Sargent III, USCG (ret.) decided to step down after many years of exemplary service and was replaced by a former USCG Commandant, Admiral Owen Siler.

Things were also coming alive with the RNLI as well. In November 1989, Edward Wake Walker, Head of Public Relations for the RNLI, visited AFRAS Executive Vice President David Chomeau in St. Louis to discuss the establishment of a non-profit corporation directly linked to and identified with the RNLI. The RNLI greatly valued and hoped to continue to build and improve its relationship with AFRAS, but needed additional fundraising efforts. One of the projects at hand was a campaign to raise funds for a “US Lifeboat.” By September, 1990, this discussion was focused on raising funds for a $1.2 million lifeboat being called the “Dublin lifeboat” and to be named after President John F. Kennedy. AFRAS did not have the resources to mount such a campaign but nevertheless agreed to work towards that goal.

In May 1990, Ian Ventham, who had taken over as the new Head of Fundraising and Marketing for the RNLI, worked very closely with David Chomeau and others to set up an efficient means of raising funds within the United States to support the RNLI. Ian has become a true friend of AFRAS and has close personal ties with David Chomeau and other AFRAS board members. Working together with the RNLI, AFRAS considered various fundraising strategies including a direct appeal to corporations and wealthy individuals, legacies, mail campaigns, hosting a dinner, plus placing ads in boating related media. Some of these were tried, but results still were disappointing. RNLI Deputy Director Ray Kipling recognized the need to “prime the pump” by allocating RNLI resources and personnel to support a US fundraising effort, in that AFRAS did not have the resources to mount such a campaign on its own. Ian recommended a professional fundraiser in the US that he had worked with to help in these efforts. The RNLI also sent us their list of US donors for a joint membership in the RNLI and AFRAS. We now mail out to these members a copy of the RNLI quarterly Lifeboats and other RNLI material such as their catalogue, plus AFRAS material including our Newsletter, an invitation to our annual awards ceremony, and our yearly calendar.

Coast Guard Auxiliary and AFRAS:

In June 1990 AFRAS took the first steps to incorporate the USCG Auxiliary into its activities. The Auxiliary’s National Commodore (NACO), Stanley Y. Kennedy, was added ex officio to serve on the AFRAS board and there was considerable discussion of ways to bond the common interests of the USCG Auxiliary and AFRAS. These discussions came to fruition in 1999 when Everette L. Tucker was serving as USCG Auxiliary NACO and AFRAS board member. The first initiative was the routine attendance by AFRAS board members and president at the Auxiliary’s annual convention. This representation and discussions with members of the Auxiliary as well as other attendees at these conferences proved to be quite valuable and this practice continues.

Expanding AFRAS Assistance, to the RNLI and Beyond:

Also in 1992 AFRAS entered into what has become a very productive arrangement to raise funds for the British Virgin Islands Search and Rescue (VISAR).  Under the capable leadership of the former VISAR Executive Administrator, Alexandra (Alex) Hewitt-Jones, VISAR and AFRAS have worked out a highly effective system that permits US donors to make a contribution through AFRAS to VISAR, taking a US tax deduction for the gift.   VISAR identified US citizens who may wish to send some funds to VISAR to support rescue operations in the British Virgin Islands and suggests they contact AFRAS to make the gift.  AFRAS, upon receipt of such a gift, takes the matter before its board and upon their approval sends a check to VISAR.

The final new initiative in 1992 derived from a request from Ray Kipling and the International Lifeboat Federation (ILF), and now called the International Maritime Rescue Federation (IMRF), to provide support to the newly formed Estonian Lifesaving Association.  It was determined that AFRAS would purchase and ship to Estonia ten VHF FM marine radios to be installed at several shore stations and aboard each of their lifeboats.  Estonia, newly independent after the collapse of the USSR, was virtually without SAR resources.  The departing Russians took everything with them, and although the Estonian Lifeboat Service had taken over harbor buildings and piers formerly used by the Soviet Border Guards, they did not have even the most basic equipment. If there were a disaster in their coastal area of operations, they had no means of establishing radio contact. John Chomeau, Herni (Jerry) Chomeau and Ron Anderson travelled to Estonia to set up the new radio stations, providing good radio coverage for the first time for that part of the Baltic Sea. Radios and antennas were installed at three lifeboat stations and aboard one lifeboat, with the Estonians taking over the installation of the other equipment. The Estonians advised AFRAS after the loss of the ferry “Estonia” that they were able to hear the ship’s MAYDAY when it sank in a storm off Sweden in October, 1994 with heavy casualties.  The Estonian Lifesaving Association was able to monitor this disaster using the AFRAS radios but was too far away to be of any assistance.

By 1993, AFRAS was once again involved in facilitating funds to help purchase a new Trent class lifeboat for the RNLI and there was lots of discussion on the best disposition of the USCG 44’ all-weather, motor lifeboats coming out of inventory as the new 47 footers come into use.  The British Waveney class lifeboats were also coming out of inventory and many of these were shipped to other rescue services.  Several are still in use in New Zealand and elsewhere. Although AFRAS attempted to broker similar overseas deliveries with the USCG, the US government rules on the disposition of surplus military equipment proved to be difficult.

By 2000, AFRAS was ready for another adjustment in course.  The two Atlantic class (RHIB) lifeboats had completed their careers with the RNLI and were retired.  The B-554 American Ambassador had served at the Atlantic College where it had 125 services, saved 26 lives and responded to 41 hoaxes/false alarms.  B-556 Spirit of America had been stationed at Hunstanton where it had 302 services, saved 78 lives and responded to 76 hoaxes/false alarms. Following the ILF conference and celebration of the RNLI 175th birthday, AFRAS undertook a campaign to purchase a new lifeboat for the RNLI based upon contributions from US supporters of the RNLI.  This culminated in late August 2004 with the presentation and naming of a new D-class inshore RNLI lifeboat Semper Paratus in Poole.

Advent of the AFRAS International Advisory Group:

In order to facilitate interaction between AFRAS and the RNLI we asked three RNLI officials, Chairman LCDR Brian Miles, ILF Secretary Ray Kipling and Director of Fundraising Ian Ventham in January 1995 to serve on an AFRAS International Advisory Group.  (This Group has since also included Ms. Alexandra Hewitt-Jones of VISAR, Mr. Sip Wiebenga of the Dutch KNRM, former RNLI Chief Executive, Andrew Freemantle, MBE).   The focus of the new advisory group is to coordinate major fundraising efforts and one of the first initiatives was AFRAS helping to facilitate discussions between the RNLI and Mr. Maurice Hardy for a million dollar donation to be used in part to purchase a new RNLI Trent class lifeboat.

The Amver Award:

The next major event in our mid-life history was the creation in early 1996 of the Amver award.  The initiative came from Rick Kenney at the Amver office at the Battery in New York who phoned AFRAS president David Chomeau in March 1996 to broach the possibility of AFRAS establishing an annual award in recognition of a rescue by a merchant ship participating in the voluntary Amver program.  David was immediately enthusiastic—particularly because AFRAS is international in scope and looked forward to making such an award to a foreign flag merchant ship.  By April of 1996 AFRAS had worked out all the particulars and Nick Ludington informed Rick Kenney that AFRAS would make an annual award of an appropriate plaque to an Amver ship making such a rescue.  It was further agreed that the award would be international in scope and not limited to ships from any particular nation or group.

AFRAS Memberships Initiated:

By the fall of 1997, a joint RNLI/AFRAS membership was being offered at $100 per year, whereas the AFRAS-only membership remained at $20 per year.  With the new list of RNLI members living in the US (or those having bank accounts in the US) AFRAS was for the first time in many years financially self-sufficient.

Genesis of the Silver Medal for Heroism:

In 2001 the step was undertaken to provide recognition for USCG Auxiliary members making a heroic rescue at sea—similar to the Gold Medal awarded to an enlisted member of the USCG.  After considerable discussion, it was decided to call this the “Silver Medal”—so called not because it was inferior to the Gold Medal, but because it represented the silver braid worn on Auxiliary uniforms, whereas the “gold side” regular USCG wear gold braid.  The criteria for both of the medals are the same, although some consideration is given to the level of training, type of vessels used, age of crew members and other factors when the AFRAS selection board is considering Silver Medal nominations.

Recent Initiatives:

Commencing from approximately 2004 onward, AFRAS sought to take on several new initiatives, to include Corporate Sponsorships to assist with fund-raising efforts, more inclusive recognition of other significant SAR events to include a CAR/SAR Award (recognition of heroic SAR in the Caribbean), the C-PORT Award (commercial maritime assistance industry), and SAR events of national significance, including: US Naval Reserve Unit, Inner Harbor, Baltimore, MD  for rescue of capsized water taxi in April, 2004; Carnival Cruise Liner “Holiday” for rescue of five Mexican fishermen in August, 2004; Cruise ship “Grand Princess” for rescue of two after getting underway from Galveston in April, 2006; Annapolis Fire Department for rescue of a woman from a capsized sailboat at night in July, 2008; and, the NY Waterway for the rescue of passengers from US AIR Flight 1549 in NYC in January, 2009.

In addition, new initiatives to focus on better establishing the AFRAS “brand” commenced in 2012, to include a complete overhaul of our web-site, establishing a Mission Statement, the first use of rescueatsea.org email addresses, and attendance at a maritime industry event for the singular purpose of soliciting corporate sponsorships.

PAST Presidents/Vice President:

  • VADM Thomas Sargent III, USCG (retired)
  • Vice Admiral Don Engen, USN (retired)
  • Mr. David Chomeau
  • Captain John Chomeau, USN (retired)
  • Captain Gabriel Kinney, USCG (retired)
  • Captain Steve Sawyer, USCG (retired)
  • MCPOCG Charles “Skip” Bowen (retired)/Mr. Wayne Spivak

PAST Chairmen:

  • VADM Thomas Sargent III, USCG (retired)
  • Admiral Owen W. Siler, USCG (retired)
  • Admiral James S. Gracey, USCG (retired)
  • VADM Roger Rufe, USCG (retired)
  • VADM Terry Cross, USCG (retired)
  • Mr. Dana  Goward, SES, USCG (retired)
  • RADM Joseph Nimmich, USCG (retired)