Map by Steve Walkowiak
Mayday. Mayday. Mayday. This is the Alaska Ranger.”
The words cut through the constant buzz of static that filled the bare, windowless cubicle on Kodiak Island where David Seidl was the watchstander on duty. He pressed his thumb into a black button on his microphone.
“Station calling, this is the United States Coast Guard, Kodiak, Alaska, Communications Station, over.”
Seconds later, a response broke into the fuzz: “Yeah, United States Coast Guard, this is the Alaska Ranger. Our position is 5, 3, 5, 3.4—53, 53.4 north, 1, 6, 9, 5, 8.4—1, 6, 9, 5, 8.4 west. We are flooding, taking on water in our rudder room. We are flooding by the stern.”
Seidl had been trained to look at the clock the moment a distress call came in. It was 10:46 Zulu. Just before 3:00 A.M. Alaska Standard Time. He knew the checklist of critical information: Name and description of vessel, location, nature of the emergency, and POB—the number of people on board.
“Alaska Ranger, this is COMMSTA Kodiak.” Seidl spoke evenly into the microphone. “Roger, good copy on position. Understand you are flooding, taking on water from the stern. Request to know number of persons on board, over.”
More static, and the gravity of the situation became clear: “Number of persons is, uh, forty-seven people on board, okay?”
IT HAD BEEN LIGHT OUTSIDE TEN HOURS before when Seidl left his apartment to drive to work. He was twenty-six years old with closely cropped brown hair and wire-rimmed glasses, and he had been a watchstander at the communications station for just over a year. Seidl worked three or four twelve-hour shifts each week, periodically switching from days to nights. It was Saturday, March 22, 2008, and his shift ran from 5:30 P.M. to 5:30 A.M. The next day was Easter, but Seidl didn’t have any particular plans. Sleep, then report to work again the next evening.
The Kodiak job was Seidl’s first Coast Guard assignment. He’d become interested in the Coast Guard when the service became part of the Department of Homeland Security, after 9/11. Seidl had studied intel in college and thought that the Coast Guard would be a good place to use his degree. Veteran operations specialists had told him Alaska was a sweet assignment—always busy, lots of big cases. But once he got there, he figured they must have been talking about Juneau. Those guys obviously hadn’t been in Kodiak. The area was known for world-class hunting and fishing, but those things weren’t a draw for Seidl. He took a part-time job washing cars at Avis. It killed the time.
It was 34°F and breezy as Seidl passed Kodiak’s twenty-five-bed hospital, the island’s single high school, and the Gas N Go—one of just four public fuel stations in town. He slowed his Jeep through the “Y,” Kodiak’s busiest intersection, where the island’s first traffic light was under construction. David could see the Kodiak fishing fleet down in the harbor, mostly small catcher boats that supply the fish processing plants in town. Kodiak is the third most profitable fishing port in the country, and the industry defines the place.
So does the Coast Guard. More than a thousand active duty men and women work at Air Station Kodiak. Add civilian employees and family members and the Coast Guard community numbers close to three thousand. While most single men and women serve only two years at the remote air station (the sprawling facility is a hand-me-down from the Navy, which ran a base on the island during World War II), married personnel are more likely to call Kodiak home for three, four, even five years. The odd Coastie falls in love with the place and finds ways to lengthen the assignment. Sometimes that means passing up promotions or quitting the service altogether.
About half of the Kodiak Coasties live on base, most in single-family homes in cookie-cutter neighborhoods that look just the same as many suburban communities in the Lower 48. The white, beige, and gray houses line up on curving streets with names like Albatross and Pigeon Point. Some of the largest sit at the end of culs-de-sac, with pickup trucks or minivans parked out front. Anchoring the winding lanes are playgrounds with jungle gyms and plastic slides and the iconic Alaskan swing: a bulbous orange fishing buoy hanging from a frayed line.
Bachelors and the most junior enlisted men and women live in barracks on the far side of the runway, closer to the base’s movie theater, pizza pub, and bowling alley, Tsunami Lanes—named for the tidal wave that flattened Kodiak in 1964. The rebuilt town is far from charming, with its weathered, wooden structures and their shedding paint and faded signs, all huddled around the crowded boat harbor.
A stink grows as the road rises away from the bay. The canneries that line the waterfront lane known as Shelikof Street process dozens of types of fish. But the staple catch is walleye pollack, a shimmery silver fish that resembles an oversized sardine. In an hour’s time, thousands of pollack can be sucked by vacuum hose from the belly of a small catcher boat, fed onto a conveyer belt and through a maze of stainless steel processing equipment, where they’re skinned, boned, and pulped into a thick, dry dough that resembles a huge batch of mashed potatoes. Sugar and preservatives are added before the mash is shaped into blocks and frozen in trays. Later, the frozen pulp will be molded into fish sticks, fast-food fish sandwiches, imitation crab, and all the other products known to the American public simply as “fish.” Few town residents ever see the inside of the fish plants. Instead, all they see is the row of corrugated metal buildings along the waterfront, the obese bald eagles that linger near the fish scraps in the canneries’ Dumpsters, and the multinational workforce that keeps the plants running—Filipinos, Mexicans, Samoans, and native Alutiiqs from the tiny, isolated villages on the far side of Kodiak Island.
Seidl pulled into the paved lot just below Communications Station Kodiak (or COMMSTA, pronounced “com stay”). The station is one of just three remaining high-frequency (HF) communication sites run by the Coast Guard that remains manned full-time. The single-story, white building is surrounded by nearly thirty communication towers—a candy-cane-striped array that allows the station to pick up high- and medium-frequency radio communications from all over the world.
At work, some of the guys joked that only Ted Stevens (“Uncle Ted” as Alaskans call the six-term senator) kept the fifty-some COMMSTA workers employed. After all, the additional Coasties sent to run the station brought money and jobs into the local economy. But it was obvious to almost everyone that it was only a matter of time before this station, too, would be automated.
Until then, the watchstanders in Kodiak share a series of twenty-four-hour duties. Four times a day they transmit faxes from the National Weather Service to ships at sea, and every two hours they broadcast navigation warnings. COMMSTA keeps radio contact, or guard, with the Coast Guard aircraft based out of Kodiak. Every fifteen minutes, the station checks in with any helicopter in flight, and every thirty minutes it makes contact with any airborne Hercules C-130, the Coast Guard’s primary fixed-wing aircraft. Finally, each watchstander spends four hours of each twelve-hour shift in the “distress room,” a small carpeted office whose single desk is stacked with radios.
Seidl began his four-hour distress room shift at 1:30 A.M. on Sunday, March 23. In the thirteen months he had been standing duty in Kodiak, he had never heard any true emergency call coming through the speakers. The HF radio just emitted that constant, gnawing hum of static. The ships in Alaska seemed to know what they were doing. If they had a problem, they could often fix it themselves or call a nearby ship for help with a VHF radio or satellite phone. Usually the small boats were the ones that got in trouble—bad weather or whatever. Another boat could often deliver a pump or give them a tow. The troubled vessel might let the Coast Guard know what was going on, or maybe not.
There were several radios on the bank of electronics in front of Seidl, each set to a different frequency. One was tuned to 2182, the international hail and distress channel. Another was set to 4125, the international frequency for mariners. His job was to sit in the room and listen for a break in the static. He was used to nothing happening. For a year he’d sat in there and nothing had happened.
To kill time, he had devised a workout routine. Push-ups, sit-ups, and squats. For an hour, he cycled through the exercises, growing damp in his T-shirt and shorts. He’d only been finished for a couple minutes when he head the first “Mayday” cut through the static, over 2182.
“ALASKA RANGER, THIS IS COMMSTA, ROGER,” Seidl replied to the report of the crew’s size. “Understand forty-seven persons on board. Request vessel description, over.”
“We are a factory trawler,” the ship’s officer answered. “We’re one hundred eighty-four feet in length, black hull, white trim, okay?”
“Alaska Ranger, this is COMMSTA Kodiak. Roger. Understand factory trawler, one, eight, four feet in length, black hull and white trim. Stand by one, over.”
Ten seconds later, Seidl hailed the ship again, and repeated its reported latitude and longitude, a position north of Alaska’s Aleutian Island Chain, 140 miles from the nearest port, in the middle of the Bering Sea.
“Alaska Ranger, this is COMMSTA. Confirm position, 5, 3, 5, 3.4 north, 1, 6, 9, 5, 8.4 west. Over.”
“That’s a roger, 53, 53.4 north, 1, 6, 9, 5, 8.4 west, okay?”
“Alaska Ranger, this is COMMSTA. Request to know if you are able to keep up with the flooding at this time, over?” Seidl asked at 2:49 A.M.
“Uh, negative,” the voice came back. “Negative…. The fire pumps cannot keep up.”
The ship was more than eight hundred miles away.