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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