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Thursday, July 28th 2016, a day two people will never forget.
I awoke that morning at 2:58, the alarm was set for 3:00, I guess
anxiety woke me up early. I was meeting my friend Tim at Stater
Harbor in Auke Bay at 4:30 to head out halibut fishing. We had
gone on this trip a few times together. Today we left early because
he had to get back by noon to take his kids to an afternoon
Coffee came on automatically and I proceeded to make breakfast.
After breakfast, I took our two dogs out for their morning walk and
then took out a friend’s dog that was staying with us. My wife, Stacy
was out of town for work and then vacation in Los Angeles with her
brother’s family and friends. She knew I was going fishing and told
me to leave my plan with someone we knew. I explained to her not to worry, If I went with one friend, his wife would know and if I went with Tim, he’s in the Coast Guard and I was certain his wife and the Coast Guard would know. I assured her, nothing would happen, Famous last words, right? I had everything loaded and ready to go and hopped in the truck at 4:00 and headed to the harbor. It was a very quiet journey with few cars on the road.
Tim and I got there at about the same time, we paid for parking and unloaded our gear into the cart and made our way down the ramp to the docks where the boat was moored. We loaded our gear on the boat, untied the dock lines and pushed off. A normal weather day it would take us about 30 minutes in the boat to get to our fishing spot, today was not a normal day.
The sky was overcast and rain was in the forecast, that isn’t odd for Juneau. The wind was forecast at 10 to 12 Kts and we were expecting 3-foot seas. The waves were bigger than I had ever been out in, Tim on the other hand, works for the Coast Guard and is used to being in rough seas. We took our time and the closer we got to our fishing spot, the rougher it became. Tim mentioned that these weren’t 3-foot seas, they were more like 5. Even with the 5 footers we made it to our location in about an hour, we were anchored up with lines in the water.
We had moderate success; I landed the first fish in about 10 minutes. It wasn’t a halibut, but instead a cod. As the next hour progressed we had landed a couple of cod and a halibut. It was still early and we needed more halibut to reach our limit.
We deliberated on whether to stay or move to another spot. We fished this spot a little longer and the longer we stayed the rougher it became. We were in a location that is normally busy with boat traffic, it is a popular whale watching and charter fishing area. We saw one charter boat go by us, we decided we would go farther north and see if it was smoother on the other side of the island. I jumped in the bow and released the anchor line from the bow so we could pull anchor. We had about 250 feet of anchor line out (this is common) so I started the process of hand reeling in the line and lifted the 22-pound anchor and mooring ball up and over the rail and into the bow of the boat.
I went back to the cabin, sat in my seat and off we went to find smoother water. We were heading north between Shelter island and the mainland and the water was starting to smooth out. We saw the charter boat that went by us earlier anchored in a popular halibut hole called halibut cove. We didn’t want to fish right on top of him so we went on north. We finally stopped just short of Benjamin island in Favorite
Channel. We decided to drift fish there. Drifting is where you
fish the bottom but don’t drop anchor, you let the current take
you along. We started getting bites and fish, and Tim ran to the
front to drop anchor. If we were sitting over a school of fish, we
didn’t want to drift passed them.
We ended up with 3 cod and 2 halibut in the boat and the seas
were getting worse. You could see the rain approach us from
the south coming up the channel. The closer it got, the rougher
the seas were. I have to say, I have never been sea sick in my
life but I could tell that I was starting to get a little queasy
feeling in my stomach. I took in a few deep breaths and it went away, we kept fishing. Light rain started coming down and you could feel the air temperature drop a little. It wasn’t bad, low to mid 60’s with light rain is normal for Juneau this time of year.
The wind had picked up and was coming north up the channel, our bow was facing due south and the anchor line was tight and extending out, off the bow around 300 feet. The waves were really starting to get big and crashing into the boat. We had noticed many of them were starting to white cap. With all the weather going on we decided it would be a good idea to either move to a calmer spot if we could find one, or, call it a day and head back to the dock. We were keeping an eye on the clock, we knew it would take us longer to get home than it did to get here because we would be going against the waves and we were farther North than where we started fishing. We made the decision to pull anchor and move on. We reeled our lines in and Tim went to the captain’s seat and I, like I have numerous times before, went to the bow to pull anchor.
I guess this is where I tell you that these boats we fish on in Alaska are 25 to 60 feet long, the all have deep sides and enclosed cabin areas. The boat we were on was 26 feet. Usually, when anchored up fishing, we rarely wear a life jacket even though we know we should. I normally put a jacket on if the seas are rough or I am in a spot on the boat where there would be an easy chance of falling over the side. For some reason, today, I didn’t put a jacket on, I guess I had got comfortable and thought this was no different than fishing on a boat in the lower 48. I had on hiking pants, two pairs of wool socks, over the calf rubber boots (XtraTuf’s), rain pant, two shirts and a rain jacket. I had a Tilley hat and my glasses on. My pockets had my wallet, car and house keys, our only boat keys (not to the boat we were on) and a multi-tool. I also had a Buck 110 folding hunter knife in its sheath on my leather belt. This is important for other reasons than I was wearing 15 pounds of clothing. Which I will get to later.
This is where things start to get fuzzy, here is what I remember.
I grabbed the anchor line and untied it from the bow cleat, we were going to have to move the boat backward because the wind and seas had pushed the mooring ball up next to the bow of the boat. I then gave the line a couple of hard yanks to release it from the front chuck. I got it part of the way out but there were a couple of inches still in the chuck. There was a lot of tension on the anchor line so I gave it one more yank with all I had. The second it released, it threw me forward into a front flip and into the ocean. My last two thoughts before blanking out were “shit… This is going to be cold!” and “I hope I clear the boat”. The force at which it threw me was unbearable. I do remember feeling my feet leaving the surface of the boat and me trying not to leave my feet, but I had no chance, I couldn’t let go of the anchor line fast enough
I don’t remember the tumble through the air or hitting the water, I have either blocked that or I blacked out, I am not sure which. The next thing I remember was being submerged, I could feel the water making its way from my neckline and cuffs of my shirt all the way down my pants and filling up my boots as if I were in slow motion. The water was cold, but surprisingly I wasn’t shivering from it. I think the adrenaline had already kicked in full gear. I remember realizing I was under water and swimming to the surface with my hat and glasses still on and in place. Now on the surface, I knew I had to somehow get to the boat and it wasn’t going to be easy. I started to try and swim, something that comes very natural to a former competitive swimmer, but the weight of my boots and clothing was dragging me back under. For a second I thought I would start taking off my clothes but I quickly realized I was running out of time. I looked up and I saw Tim leaning over the bow with a handout. The waves pushed me toward the boat as I swam and was treading water to keep my chin above the waterline.
I reached up and grabbed the boat rail or Tim, I can’t remember which but at some point I know Tim had a hold of me re-assuring me by telling me “I got Ya!”, and we started trying to get me in the boat. At this moment I thought, wow, that was a close call, now just get in the boat. First, we tried to pull me out by the hands, then we tried with Tim grasping hold of my coat. He was pulling so hard that my coat was beginning to come off. We stopped and I grasped the railing again. We both tried to catch our breath. Tim asked if I could clasp my hands around the back of his neck and he would lift me up that way. I reached around him and held on as Tim tried with all his might to get his legs underneath himself so he could stand up. The waves were pounding me pretty hard at this point. And the current and waves were pushing my legs under the boat and I probably gained an extra hundred pounds of water
weight. Tim had to lean over so far so I could reach his neck
he could only lift with his back and neck. We both knew he
could not chance me pulling him in too as he was my only
hope for rescue. At one point Tim almost had me up where
my elbows were above the rail but I didn’t have the strength
to kick in the water to raise myself out. We tried and tried, but
nothing was working. I was calm enough that I held on with
one hand and took my glasses off and handed them to Tim to
put in the boat. I should have handed him my hat too, as I
would lose it a short time later. It was my favorite hat after
all. What I thought at first was a close call but no big deal was
starting to turn into a very bad ordeal in my mind. Though I still knew we would find a way to get me in the boat.
He asked me if I was OK to hang on before he rushed to grab a life jacket to put on me, I told him I was. He got back and I hung on with my left hand as Tim put my right hand and arm in the jacket. Then I swapped hands on the rail and Tim put my other arm in the jacket. This was just in time. The waves were so big and constant that I felt like every wave I was under water. I had already swallowed a couple of gulps of sea water, I was trying to breathe in between the sets of waves, but they just kept coming, one after another, after another, and another. It was relentless. I kept trying to hold on and at the same time, keep the waves from bouncing my face off the side of the aluminum boat. I remember Tim telling me we had to get me to the back of the boat. It didn’t register at first, I was thinking, the back side of the boat is just as tall as the front side we are on and it doesn’t have a hand rail? Then it hit me, the back of the boat silly, the engine sits on a swim step that is at water level. If I could get back there, I could climb in the boat just like I had done a thousand times growing up water skiing.
I can’t remember if he asked me if I could make it to the back of the boat or told me we had to get to the back of the boat, whichever the case, I believe I responded with; “I don’t think I can scoot back there because I don’t have the strength to hold on without the rail”. Next thing I knew, he asked me if I was OK to hang on another second, I told him I was. Tim said he would be right back. Now I don’t know how long he was gone or how many waves crashed over me but It seemed like a blink of the eye and I heard his voice ask me if I could grab this. He was leaning over the rail, holding the mooring line loop end in front of my face.
I am not sure my exact words to him at this point but seeing that loop was like opening your first Christmas present. I grabbed the loop and pushed off the boat to make my way to the back. I was doing a poor version of the side stroke and I almost let go of the rope at this point. I had a wave crash into the back of me and it finally knocked my hat off. I wanted to look for the hat but noticed I couldn’t feel the rope in my hand so I pushed my fingers through the loop to grip it better and with the help of Tim pulling me to the boat I made it to the swim step. Tim was there on the step wrapping is arms around me pulling me up. I am still not sure how Tim made it to the back of the boat with the rope. There was a cabin he had to go around or through. I assume he went around on the rail (Think of Sheriff Brody from the Movie Jaws tip toeing to the back of the boat on the small walkway). Anyway, I had my right foot on the anti-ventilation plate that sits right above the engine propeller. I was thinking at the time; I hope the engine is off in case I slip. I didn’t want to get caught in the prop. With my foot in place, Tim pulling me on board, my right arm grasping the motor I tried to stand and pull myself up. I could tell I was spent. I didn’t have the strength to straighten my leg. Tim helped hoist me on the swim step. I told Tim I was good, I was going to sit on the step a second and catch my breath. Even there, we were being pounded by wave after wave. I finally got up and crawled onto the back deck. I had trouble lifting my legs due to the extra 50-pounds of water in each of my boots. In all the chaos, my hat was the only thing the ocean claimed, I still had keys, knives, wallet, money, oh and my life.
Now here is what happened through Tim’s eyes:
After a day of 4-5 foot seas, and beat down by 20 plus MPH winds, we decided to pull anchor and head in for the day. In order to retrieve the anchor, I had to back away from the mooring ball in order to pull it up. The problem was the anchor was snagged on the front chuck unbeknown to me. Once I began to back up, and while Dale was attempting to let the anchor line out, it created a tension in the line. By doing this it acted as a spring while Dale still had a hold of the line. Once the line was free, it catapulted Dale 10-15 feet in the air and into the water.
I immediately ran to the bow of the boat to try and retrieve Dale from the water. Luckily the waves were crashing in the direction of the boat which pushed and aided him in being able to grab a hold of the bow. I immediately tried to pull him up, but due to the current and waves pulling him under the boat, I was unable to do so. My first thought was I have to get a life jacket on him before doing anything else. Had he let go of the boat with the height of waves we were experiencing, it would have swept him away in a second. Somehow I was able to finagle a life jacket on him which at least provided support and stability for him. Especially if he were to let go of the boat. By now the waves were crashing over his head so much that all I could see was his hands holding the boat at times. I knew I had to do something quickly. He had now been in the water 5-6 minutes. It was important that I not panic because I was his only chance of surviving. No other boats were even within a 10-mile radius of us to help.
I thought the only way possible to get him out of the water was to get him to the back of the boat where there was a step and lower freeboard for exit. The problem was with the seas pounding him and the boat it would have swept him away had he tried to swim to the back. I untied the mooring line from the boat and connected one end to Dale and the other to myself. I ran to the back of the boat once he let go and began pulling him to the back while he tried to swim. Dale was extremely gassed by now. Once I got him to the back of the boat I was able to grab a hold of him and pull him up. We were both extremely exhausted and stressed, but very much relieved.
This could have gone very wrong in so many ways. We were lucky and blessed. No doubt lessons were learned, starting with always having your life jacket on here in Alaska. I think we are both used to more forgiving environments in the Lower 48 where a life jacket may not be necessary all the time. Alaska waters had no part of that. Forgiveness is not in its blood. However, I refused to let my friend drown that day and my 11 years of Coast Guard training aided me in saving his life. It is nice to look back and be able to laugh about it now. We will have a story to tell for the rest of our lives. Never let your guard down in Alaska. For its then you become vulnerable and susceptible to the dangers that it can bring. And ALWAYS be Semper Paratus!
Tim is absolutely spot on with the lessons learned. Many of you reading this have probably seen the survival shows or reality shows on TV and have never really believed when the people on those shows say that Alaska is an unforgiving place. Take it from Tim, an 11-year Coast Guard Veteran and me a competitive swimmer, and water skier with 50 years of experience in the water and around boats, Alaska doesn’t care. If you get complacent, comfortable or just lazy in your approach here, Alaska will find a way to let you know who’s the boss.
Once I was finally onboard and seated, Tim was kind enough to pull the anchor for me. We got the anchor up and started making our way back home. I told Tim that If we had that on YouTube we might have been famous. He laughed and said:
“Can you imagine me telling you Hang On Dale! We’re going live on Facebook!”
Our conversation got back to normal things on the ride back. Tim was always keeping an eye on me, making sure I wasn’t cold or having signs of some type of trauma. I surprisingly never really got cold, not even when I was in the water. I can’t remember at any time my teeth chattering or my body shivering. Even coming home, I peeled off my rain jacket and shirt so I could stand on the back deck and dry off a bit in the wind.
Once back at the harbor we filled the boat up with fuel and parked. We still had a boat to clean and fish to process. I told Tim I would do the cod at the house rather than there on the dock. I think that was my mind telling me I had enough fun for one day. It is something that even now, only 48 hours after it happened we are pleased we can laugh about it. We started planning our next trip before we got in our cars to leave the harbor that day.
I am thankful that I had Tim in my corner on that day, without him, I would not have been able to tell this story. I can’t repay Tim for his heroics, but I can pay him the gas money I still owe him for the trip.
middle aged in the last frontier
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