By Amy White
The Texas Catholic
On an exceptionally windy day in 2021, at least two miles from the shore of Lake Hubbard near Dallas, a 13-year-old Mercedes Porter-Via pulled a stranded man aboard the sailboat “Fun” and saved his life. Now, at 15, Mercedes’ heroism has been officially recognized by the U.S. Congress.
Currently a sophomore at Ursuline Academy of Dallas, Mercedes is a member of Latinas Unidas, a club at the school for girls of Latina heritage. Along with her family, she lives in Allen and attends All Saints Catholic Church in Dallas.
Mercedes, her younger brother, and her parents are all part of the Rush Creek Yacht Club, a sailing club located south of Rockwall in Heath. Like her father, Alex Porter, who began sailing as a young child in Mexico, Mercedes became involved in the sport of sailing at age six.
“I quickly got really passionate for the sport,” Mercedes said, “so I joined the race team, and I’ve been sailing with them since I was seven.”
On July 16, 2021, during a race team practice, Mercedes set sail on Lake Hubbard as part of a team of seven 13- to 16-year-olds.
“That day, it was pretty windy,” Mercedes recounted; the winds had been about 20 mph, according to the U.S. Sailing Association. “We actually like it when it’s windy because it’s more exhilarating and more fun.”
As the team’s sailboat ventured into Lake Hubbard that day, the crew spotted an unmanned foil board floating in the lake. Mercedes had a sense that something was amiss. A few minutes later, a member of the group, Leon Van Os, spotted something else in the water.
“We thought it was a buoy, but it ended up being a person,” Mercedes said.
A windsurfer, Robert Cummings, was shivering in the chilly water. He had been stranded for over 45 minutes without his board.
The team sailed over to retrieve Cummings, but rescue was no easy task.
“Since it was really windy, it was harder to decelerate the boat,” Mercedes explained. “We had to plan on slowing the boat down before we got close to him, because if we were moving too fast, it would be hard to pick him up, and it would also be hard to avoid him because he’s moving around.”
Remarkably, the crew managed to rescue Cummings in one pass.
“[Cummings] will actually tell you that he was surprised that he was picked up correctly on the first try,” Alex said.
Next, the team needed to pull the man from the frigid water and onto the boat. Mercedes, who was manning the bow that day, grabbed onto Cummings to lift him.
“He was well over six feet tall. So, it was hard,” she said. “I was able to grab his hands from the side of the boat and move him to the back, and then I started pulling him up. Then, a couple of other people helped me pull him into the boat.”
Lindsay Scott, Vice Commodore of Education at Rush Creek Yacht Club, commented on the rescue, “As sailors, we are taught safety at sea and teamwork at a young age… Mercedes and her team were confident and quick to act, each sailor taking a different role in the rescue. Not many young teenagers could be trusted to rescue a person in distress. But this team proved their worthiness by identifying, responding, and executing a water rescue all by themselves!”
Once Cummings was onboard, Mercedes called her father. Mercedes’ parents were on a motorboat nearby, supervising the sailboats on the lake. They approached the sailboat, took Cummings onboard their motorboat, recovered his board, and brought him safely to shore.
On Dec. 3, 2023, at Rush Creek Yacht Club in Heath, Mercedes and her team received the Arthur B. Hanson Rescue Medal from the U.S. Sailing Safety at Sea Committee for their heroic rescue of Cummings two years earlier.
“Since 1989, the Arthur B. Hanson Rescue Medal is an award given to skippers of pleasure boats or race support vessels who effect rescues of victims from the water,” Scott explained, adding, “For the past seven years, the Arthur B. Hanson Rescue Medal has been awarded only once per year. It is a great honor and privilege to be recognized for such a unique achievement.”
Representatives from the Texas Sailing Association and U.S. Sailing Association were present at the ceremony. Cummings also attended the event.
Congressman Pat Fallon arranged for a U.S. flag to be flown over the U.S. Capital in recognition of each member of the crew.
“I never expected the U.S. Congress to honor them as heroes in flying the flag,” said Mariana Via, Mercedes’ mother. “I’m very proud of what they have done, of the seamanship, of the commitment, of being aware of their surroundings.”
Following Mercedes’ accomplishment, her Catholic school community has praised her act of service.
“We could not be more proud of Mercedes for her heart and the confidence that she showed in a moment of need,” said Colin Campbell, president of All Saints Catholic School, where Mercedes was a student through eighth grade.
Dr. Andrea Shurley, principal of Ursuline Academy of Dallas, said, “Mercedes and her fellow youth sailors demonstrated bravery and responsibility in a situation that could have been challenging even for a seasoned sailing crew. A moment like this has allowed her, at a young age, to truly understand that we are here to help each other when in distress.”
Mercedes expressed appreciation for the opportunity to serve someone in need, sharing, “I’m really happy that we were able to save this man’s life.”
Find more stories celebrating Catholic schools in the Diocese of Dallas in the Jan. 26 print edition of The Texas Catholic.