Lost at Sea: The Man in the Fish Tote

11 09 2012

Friday, September 7th, is a bad day on the ocean.

With the forecast calling for Southeast winds of 35 knots and 11-foot seas, the Nerka spends the morning trolling in the mouth of Gilmer Bay. We hadn’t expected to be fishing at all today. If we catch anything, we reason, they’ll be bonus fish, and we’ll already be safe in the harbor’s arms when the wind comes up. On Day 13 of a grueling trip, a relaxing afternoon on anchor sounds good.

We eat lunch on the pick shortly after the wind bares its teeth, but any further thought of relaxing whooshes overboard with the building gusts. By early afternoon, eight trollers cluster on the bay’s southern shelf, straining taut anchor lines. Our companions are 48-foot fiberglass and steel rigs, sturdy, seaworthy vessels. As seaworthy as any of us can be. With September’s onslaught of fall weather, no one wants to push their luck. Winner of the tough guy award, the final arrival drops his anchor at 3:00.

Whitecaps slam-dance between boats as the wind holds steady at 39 knots. The gusts are dragon’s breath, visibly rip-snorting through the bay. An elderly wooden troller, located several hours away behind St. Lazaria Island, begins taking on water, and one of our harbor mates drags anchor. As the captain naps, his boat shoots clear across the anchorage as if sail-powered, pausing a quarter-mile from the rocks. Another troller is charging over to alert him, when he wakes in time to avert disaster.

Darkness brings a rare pardon. The man taking on water reports that he’s safe for the night. The gusts let up and the whitecaps come down. The dragon goes to sleep, and so do Joel and I. Deep in relieved dreams, neither of us hear the Coast Guard’s midnight call to any vessels anchored in Gilmer Bay.

*****

Saturday begins at 4:30, when Joel pulls the anchor and we run into the pitch black. Out Gilmer Bay, past Point Amelia, on to Beaver Point. Though dawn is an hour away, so is the spot we want to drop our hooks. After the previous day’s frenzied conditions, the sea’s remaining bounce feels gentle.

When our fishing partner Marlin joins us on the drag, his voice is grave. “There’s a boat missing. That’s why they were calling all of us in the anchorage last night, to see if they’d made it in there.”

He describes a 28-foot troller, “landing craft style” – an open vessel rigged with a couple fishing davits and outboard motors. “I’ve passed it in the straits,” he says. “Can’t remember the name, but they always wave as they go by.”

Fishermen are never a stronger community than in situations like this. When tragedy cuts one of us down, we all bleed. We throw judgment to staunch the flow of fear; our anxiety turns hot, acrid. Envisioning the worst as foregone conclusions, our anger is that of parents waiting for a teenager out long past curfew. We talk about the “big boats” that holed up tight or headed for town, and curse, “What the fuck were they doing out there?”

All morning, the Coast Guard’s orange bird buzzes Kruzof Island. The usual fishing chatter is eerily absent from the VHF. Throughout the fleet, we all turn up the volume, lean in to follow the helicopter’s search updates as they’re broadcast across channel 16.

Midday, the Sitka Mountain Rescue reports debris at Shoal Point. Hearts seize. “Debris” is code for an oil slick on the water, drifting buckets, maritime tombstones marking the site where a boat went down. But the helicopter quickly disputes this sighting. “The debris is tsunami-related, we can see the Japanese writing.” The search goes on.

At 1:40, the State Trooper patrol vessel Courage calls the Coast Guard. “We’ve got one survivor in sight on the beach at Point Amelia. He’s waving, ambulatory, and appears to be okay. If you’ve got a helo you can send, landing’s gonna be tough.”

The response is immediate. “We’re about four minutes out, eight miles away.”

“It’s a very steep, cliff-y area,” the Trooper warns. “You’re gonna have to use a hoist.”

“Roger that. Thanks for the help.”

*****

Though Joel and I are alone on the Nerka, I swear the cabin rings with every other trollers’ cries of relief when the pilot’s voice comes through the speakers. “We’ve got one survivor on board.”

Thanks to the alert man’s explanations, the pilot relays previously unknown details. At 2:30 on Friday afternoon, they went down off Beaver Point. The last troller came into Gilmer at 3:00, I remember. An hour’s run… He would’ve been right in front of them. 

Joel interrupts my pensive thoughts with his own. “Dude. When we smelled gas earlier…”

Trolling along Beaver Point several hours earlier, we’d gotten a sudden whiff of gas. Marlin had, too, asking his deckhand to check that their skiff motor wasn’t leaking. But there’d been no rainbow sheen on the water. The ghostly vapors were gone almost as soon as we’d smelled them.

Now we stare at each other in too-late dawning horror. “Holy shit… That was their boat we were smelling.”

“Shit. I didn’t even think… We should’ve let them know, gotten them on the scene a few hours earlier.”

Guilt is a cold shroud, and I shudder. It’s too horrifying to realize that we’d thoughtlessly puttered over a shipwreck less than a day old, its people vanished.

*****

 Now, thanks to the located survivor, the Coast Guard issues a Pan Pan radio call with additional information.

“The Coast Guard has received a report of zero-one persons in the water in the vicinity of Gilmer Bay. The person is described as a male wearing an olive green float coat, dark blue fishing pants, located in or near a light blue fish tote. All vessels in the vicinity are requested to keep a sharp lookout, assist if possible, and report all sightings. This is Coast Guard Sector Juneau, out.”

Not a survival suit – a float coat. I glance at the clock. It’s been almost 24 hours since they went down. Fear again spits forth as frustration. Oh, for god’s sake – an olive green float coat? Wear stuff that allows you to be found! Ahead, the coastline lurks through Southeast Alaska’s omnipresent ocean mist. Dense dark forest meets a charcoal shore. I glance down at myself – black fleece pants, black thermal shirt – and make a mental note. From here on out, I will select fish clothes as if my life depends on them.

*****

By 2:00, forecasted “light winds” have escalated to a snarling 27 knots. With the wind comes sideways rain. The fish stopped biting after a few good tacks; now Joel and I loiter in the cabin’s warmth, ignoring our empty lines. “This is stupid,” he finally says. “We’ve had a good trip. Let’s stack ‘em and get going to town.”

The logical route back to Sitka is to run south, around Cape Edgecumbe and into Sitka Sound. But it’s gotten shitty, and we’d be bucking right into it. We opt to run up the coast instead, tacking an extra 10 miles onto the journey, to duck into Salisbury Sound and double back down to Sitka by way of Neva and Olga Straits’ blissfully calm embrace.

The Nerka charges along at 6.5 knots as Joel and I follow the radio conversation between the Coast Guard and the Trooper patrol vessel. They’ve combed the entirety of Gilmer Bay and the surrounding area. “Have you looked off-shore?” one asks the other. They haven’t yet, but will run five miles out and begin tacking up.

“If he went off-shore…. That’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.” Joel turns to me. “You know, we’re running this way, anyway. Let’s duck out and keep an eye out.”

I nod. “Sounds good.”

But “keeping an eye out” is easier said than done. With dense cloud cover sitting heavily on the water, visibility has deteriorated to less than a half-mile. The seas are battleship gray, punctuated with white curlers that smack the Nerka’s port hindquarter as we angle off-shore. We take a couple nasty rolls, traveling in the trough. I’m ashamed of my relief when Joel clicks the autopilot to the starboard.

He studies the chart on the computer screen. “The helicopter said they already flew at two miles and didn’t see anything. We’re at two miles now, so let’s angle in and run the one-and-a-half mile line up to Salisbury.”

I perch at the starboard windows while Joel surveys the area to our port, binoculars snug against his eyes. The glasses twitch at every paddling seabird. We simultaneously gasp at a head bobbing towards us. It disappears under the surface, then slowly pops up for a closer look – a head of bull kelp.

He shakes his head. “Amazing how something like this makes the ocean seem like such a huge, lonely place.”

For the next 35 minutes, we stare into the sea. Loud silence settles in the cabin, until Joel breaks it. “Can you imagine what that guy must be going through? Bobbing around in this weather, no idea where he is or if anyone’ll find him…”

I don’t voice my terrible thought: I don’t expect he’s going through anything anymore. Adrift in these conditions all night and all day, no survival suit, totally dependent on a plastic tote that may or may not still be afloat?

Moments later, Joel says what I didn’t. “If they haven’t found him by now… I think that guy’s a goner.”

“Yeah.”

Still we look. Everyone does.

*****

When I leave the window, it feels like kneeling to defeat. I cut an apple, slice some cheese. Neither of us is hungry. The food sits on the table like an accusation.

“THERE!” Joel leaps up from the pilot seat, pointing out the window with one suddenly shaky hand, yanking the throttle down with the other. “What’s that?”

Immediately ahead, sixty feet to our port, a blue tote wallows among the waves like an apparition. The opening faces away from us, listing heavily to one side. A dreadful thought pops into my mind. Is a body weighing it down?

Joel fumbles for the radio mic. “Coast Guard Juneau, this is the Nerka. We’ve got a blue tote in front of us. I can’t see anyone in it, but – “

Our shrieks mingle. “There’s another one!”

Several hundred yards ahead bobs a second sky-blue vessel. This one sits upright – and a tiny dark spot peeks out of the top.

“He’s in that one!” Words shrill with disbelief. “He’s waving – he’s alive!”

While Joel relays our position to the Coast Guard, I run up to the bow. The man in the tote stretches his arms wide overhead, raising and lowering them without pause. I mirror his movements, waving wildly. Holy shit, man – you’re alive!

Adrenaline makes me foolish. I’m scrambling for buoys, lines, wondering how we’ll pull him out of the water, when Joel sticks his head out of the helm window. “The helo’s already almost here; they’ll pick him up.”

Even as he says the words, the enormous thrum of helicopter blades reverberates through our bodies. Suddenly we’re inside a blender; the waves flare up in dense rotor wash as the helicopter descends through the heavy cloud ceiling and hovers above.

We aren’t close enough to shout to the man in the tote. Even if the sea didn’t yawn between us, the wind and helicopter noise would drown our voices. So I stand on the bow and continue to wave madly, hoping he’ll be able to translate the prayer-full thoughts in these frantic gestures. You made it through, sweetie, they’ve got you. You’re gonna be okay, they’ve got you. They’ve got you.

Joel puts the boat back into gear and runs away from the scene, wanting to be out of the way. Then, like good products of a youtube/Facebook culture, we stand in the Nerka’s cockpit and film the rescue. I hold my breath as the rescue swimmer descends into the water – so fast! – and watch him lean into the tote. What does that first moment of physical human contact feel like, I wonder. Had the man in the tote wondered if he’d never again feel touch other than the ocean’s assault, the wind and rain’s stinging slap? Or had he maintained hope through the night’s darkest hours?

Forty-three seconds. That’s how quickly the Coast Guard has the basket down to the water, the man fastened in, and back into the helicopter. They hoist the rescue swimmer back up next, and the helo rises. The abandoned tote shudders in the rotor wash.

Joel climbs out of the cockpit. “Okay… Let’s get going.”

He ducks out of the sideways rain, back into the warmth of the Nerka’s cabin, and the engine revs back up to traveling speed. I stay on deck for a moment longer. Tears I wasn’t aware of mingle with the rain on my cheeks, and my arms open once more in that wide windmilling motion. Slow with gratitude now, I wave to the helicopter, wishing again that body language translated.

You guys are amazing. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

*****

At 4:07, the helo pilot calls the Sitka Air Station. “Be advised, we’ve got the survivor on board.” Asked if they’d need medical services on scene upon their arrival, the pilot replies that it’d be a good precaution, “but his vitals are good.”

The man in the tote lands in Sitka at 4:31 p.m., Saturday, September 8.

*****

Why did the F/V Kaitlin Rai go down? The Sitka Sentinel got the story.  

Visit Alaska Waypoints to view videos of the rescue, taken from the Nerka’s back deck.

Written with the greatest joy for both survivors and their families, and heartfelt gratitude and awe for the Sitka  & Juneau Coast Guard, Alaska State Troopers, Sitka Mountain Rescue, and all of the individuals who respond as if a stranger in need is a loved one. I’ve never been more thankful to be a part of this ocean family.     


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48 responses

11 09 2012
fish*wine*ski

So amazing. Good work.

11 09 2012
Robert Lee

Hi, this is Robert Lee, resident writer The Island Institute, in Sitka until 10/2. Jerry Dzugan sent me your link. Great writing–took this Montana landlubber out to sea, vividly even without the video. Thanks. Would love to meet you. troutpoet@blackfoot.net. Nice writing, better living! Robert

4 10 2012
Tele

Oh, I’m sorry I missed you, Robert! Thanks for your kind words, and many thanks for sharing your time and gifts with Sitka. (I saw a great photo of you with the Blue Canoe Writers!) Hope you had a good experience with us, and I look forward to crossing paths with you in the future. Be well!

12 09 2012
Lori

Thank you for sharing your article of my family member– your firsthand knowledge and writing technique has captured the most remarkable part of Ryan’s incident.

11 09 2012
socalsalty

Wow, that was like an episode of Deadliest Catch. I’m glad it had a happy ending. Your writing of the account is really good. Thanks for sharing. Is the video posted? Please post a link.

4 10 2012
Tele

Thanks, Salty. I gave the videos to Alaska Waypoints, so you can view them at the end of the post over there:

http://www.alaskawaypoints.com/lost-sea-man-fish-tote

11 09 2012
Pam

Wow. Holy floating fish tote Batman. You are an amazing writer. What a story. Miss you!

11 09 2012
Ken Aadsen

Sooo grateful that you have the invisible forces aboard the Goodship Nerka: A powerful teaching, an a riveting sharing.

11 09 2012
Gwen

Very good thinking and well done! You saved his life! Fishing is interesting. We are competitive, and yet so very dependent on each other out on the water. Your story brought tears. It has been a tough summer losing Richard north of Juneau on July 4th. I’m very glad this time it’s a happy ending.

Tele, please take some of your hard earned money and buy you and Joel float coats or inflatable suspenders or something that you will always wear and will give you a little more time if you go overboard. And please make sure they are not dark green or dark blue!!

4 10 2012
Tele

Gwen, I’m so sorry for your loss. Best wishes for you and yours in this off-season.

11 09 2012
Ashley

oh my god! What an intense experience. Writing is fantastic of course, but you two saved him!

11 09 2012
Nancy D

Amazing! Your perseverance to help is felt so deeply in the writing. Can’t wait for you guys to come home!

11 09 2012
Mary Jean

I was riveted and in tears by the story’s end. With your heartfelt gratitude tfor the survival of a fellow fisherman and the coast guard’s speedy rescue, may I add my admiration and awe of the two aboard the f/v Nerka and their sharp eyes and open hearts!

11 09 2012
Damien Rossi-Busichio

WOW

11 09 2012
fishingblues

Amazing story (and telling of the story)! I can’t tell you how often I have silently thanked the coast guard for being out there when Zed is fishing. They help me sleep at night.

11 09 2012
rosseliot

Awesome!

11 09 2012
grainsifter

…well that certainly woke me up! What a (true) story, and so well told…

11 09 2012
SteveS

You guys are really good people and redeem my faith in the human race.

11 09 2012
Marti Barker

Ryan is my grandson and I am so every greatful you were able to find him and call it in; thank you, thank you and thank you. Read your story and now I can’t keep crying but… they are tears of joy. God bless you and yours.

15 09 2012
sherry sanchez

I am the mother of the man found on the island, and Ryan is family emotionally. Thanks for all of the help everyone joined together to make their tradgety a blessing of life.

4 10 2012
Tele

Marti and Sherry, great big hugs to you both. We couldn’t imagine what it was like from your end of the experience, from devastation to exuberance, and are so very thankful to be able to celebrate with you.

16 11 2012
Marti

Hi Sherry, so glad to meet you but wish under different circumstance, just praising God for giving us our boys back; this was an extremely emotional time but so happy I was able to meet Stonie’s mom; he’s truly a great and wonderful man and I love him like family.

11 09 2012
andrew thoms

Thanks Tele and Joel

11 09 2012
Jolene Hanson

I got chills reading this, Tele. Miracle of miracles.

11 09 2012
karlalovesfish

Tele, you & Joel are heroes. Thank-you for acknowledging, also, the heroic efforts of the Coast Guard. Hugs!!

11 09 2012
Rob Waring

Simply awesome….you didn’t give up while most would have. Great read particularly on 9/11…….Thanks amigo, job well done……

11 09 2012
Gail Gowdy

Nicely done account Tele. We heard the news, but not the details and had no idea you had a part in the rescue. Well done indeed!!

11 09 2012
Aubrey McAnn

That is my cousin. Thank you for staying out and finding him. Words aren’t enough!

11 09 2012
Spencer severson

Tearing up reading your write…..hog pile of heros. Glad we live here

11 09 2012
Ronnie Fairbanks

Amazing story!!

11 09 2012
Sue

Fantastic story, so glad it worked out…..And they are safe.

11 09 2012
Denise

This is awesome! Thank you Nerka for going out of your way to find my nephew, my sister’s son! God Bless you! Your writing is amazing by the way, had me in tears.

11 09 2012
Andrew Kingwell

Thank you to the writer of this blog. These two men were dear freinds of mine and it broke everyone in half to have this happen. Very glad you were out there to spot them.

12 09 2012
Amanda

Amazing storytelling! Thank you for writing! And hooray for survivors!

12 09 2012
Kevin Avruch

Tele and Joel, what an amazing thing, to save a life. What a wonderful thing.

Kevin

12 09 2012
Susan Balée

Great writing. Reminded me of fishing scenes in “Snow Falling on Cedars” by David Guterson.

12 09 2012
pierrmorgan

Amazing writing, Tele. So glad all – and Nerka & Crew too! – are safe.

12 09 2012
john murray

Wow I’m so happy and surprised about this whole ordeal.When I first heard the PON-PON I said to my crew this isn’t good exspecially with the weather the way it was.Then F&G found the first guy,Wow,there’s hope yet.It wasn’t much later we heard the CG thanking you guys.I was so dam happy to hear that transmission.You all and the other searchers didn’t give up hope,one of the major ingredients needed to survive.

12 09 2012
Doug Teakell

Great job, gentlemen. Retired after 25 years at sea, and had a son spend a couple of seasons in your waters, you’d think i’d have gotten inured to this stuff. Not so, not so. My heart was in my throat, reading, then tears of joy at the rescue. Well written. Thank you for taking that extra tack and to not give up the search.

12 09 2012
Deborah DenHerder

Well, I’m wiping my eyes right now…nothing like hearing it from someone out there. My son was also part of the search, and Stoney had bought his engines from us, and the guys got to know the boat well. Because of that we were glued to the radios all Saturday. Felt such relief when we heard they were safe! Thank you everyone involved, we all depend on you folks!

12 09 2012
Angela Mellen

I have read this at least 10 times, not just because it’s beautifully written but Ryan Harris is my Nephew!! Thank you so very much for everything!! Much love!!

12 09 2012
Kort

Tele,

What an amazing account of the rescue! (It’s a great story anyway, but your words really give it life). I work at Channel 2 in Anchorage and we’d love to see your video of the rescue, if you’re willing to share it. You can email me at khorazdovsky@ktuu.com.

Kortnie – Assignment Editor

13 09 2012
Julie Berg

Hello,
This is Julie Berg from KOMO TV in Seattle.
Could you please call me at 206-404-4145 -we would like to talk with you about the rescue.
Many Thanks!

13 09 2012
Keith Chaplin

Tele, I look forward to your blog posts, and this one takes the cake. Amazing story, amazing storytelling, wow. Just wow. Thanks for sharing.
Keith

14 09 2012
Judith Hughes

I read your account this morning and have thought of little else all day. It’s an great rescue story made goose-pimple real by the teller. Thank you for letting us see it from your point of view. You must have felt pretty danged good having saved a young life. Congratulations all around.

14 09 2012
Eric Jordan

Tele,
Thank you for the fine writing which makes this story so poignant, personal, and educational,
I was out there that day also, an hour or so behind you headed for Salisbury. We were keeping our eyes open and one of my partners, like you, went out of his way to look. I believe your extra effort, specifically, Joel’s decision to think about where to look, and then adjust course accordingly, most likely saved this life.
After over 60 years fishing in SE Alaska I know the extra effort to look out for each other is what sustains us.
Thank you.

Eric Jordan

9 10 2012
angelamercy

Tele, Nick and I were camping in the Columbia River Gorge when this was posted. I read it for the first time today. What an incredible story. It brought your world and the community of fishermen vividly alive. What a hear-opening story. It is incredible how we can be used when we are willing. You and Joel are more than willing to go the extra knot to make a difference. Thank you for the beautiful and skillful words to bring the story alive, and for the loving and deeply ethical heart to make it happen.

8 12 2012
Bore Head

WOW! What a story!
Excellent journalism.




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