Thursday, July 28th 2016, is 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 doctor’s appointment.
The 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 only 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, rain pants, 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 “s–t… 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.
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. 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.
(You can read more About this Ncredible story at http://www.mbmedia.co/man-overboard.html)
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