Sick at Sea

When the Alaska Ranger left Dutch Harbor early on Saturday afternoon, the Alaska Warrior was still tied up at the pier, its crew loading on the supplies needed for what might be a multiweek fishing trip. It was late afternoon by the time the Warrior’s deckhands untied the ship’s lines and sailed out into Captains Bay.

Like the Ranger, the Warrior was a one-time Mississippi mud boat, an oil-rig supply ship that had been bought by the Fishing Company of Alaska and converted into a bottom trawler years earlier. The ship had about the same size crew as the Rangerand fished for the same species on the same fishing grounds. She was a slower boat, though, with a boxier design; the Warrior’s top speed was just 10 or 11 knots, as opposed to the Ranger’s 14 or 15.

Her captain was forty-six-year-old Scott Krey, a broad-jawed, blond-haired Seattle fisherman who’d been working in Alaska for twenty years, the last two as the captain of the Warrior. He was asleep when his first mate, Raymond Falante, called him in his stateroom, around 2:30 A.M. Ray had just heard from the mate on the Alaska Spirit, who had been called by David Silveira. The Alaska Ranger was sinking.

Scott knew most of the guys on the Ranger; he’d dealt with 80 percent of the crew at one time or another. Both Pete Jacobsen and David Silveira were on the ship as a favor to the company, Scott knew. Neither man had been happy to be put on there, but they were the types who were going to do their jobs.

The Warrior was already full throttle toward the Ranger’s reported position when Captain Scott got to the wheelhouse. They were about forty miles away—but still much closer than the Spirit or any of the other FCA ships.

MOST OF THE WARRIOR CREW HAD at least a couple of friends on the Ranger. It wasn’t uncommon for Fishing Company of Alaska employees to move between boats. The Warrior’s first mate, Raymond Falante, had been the mate on the Ranger until late 2007. And the Warrior’s chief engineer, Ed Cook, had helped his younger brother Danny get a job with the FCA just a few months before. Now Dan was the chief engineer on the Ranger.

Ed’s original idea had been that they’d share the position of chief on the Warrior. Ed was already sixty, Danny fifty-eight. They were ready to slow down, to spend a few more months a year somewhere other than Alaska. Ed, especially, wanted more time with his wife, Cindy. A couple years before, he’d been back at their modest riverside home in Washington’s Cascade Mountains for just a week when the company called: They needed him to come back up immediately. The FCA would write Cindy a $1,000 “sorry” check to make up for it.

So Ed went back. It wasn’t about the money, he’d just felt obligated. If he and Danny shared the same job, this type of thing wouldn’t happen again, Ed thought. But it hadn’t worked out the way he’d hoped. The company was desperate for qualified people. Right away, they put Danny on the Ranger.

Ed and Danny had grown up in San Diego, where their father was also a fishing boat engineer. They were the third and fourth of eight kids in a boisterous Irish Catholic family. When he was fourteen, Ed left school to join his dad on the tuna boats. A couple years later, Danny did the same. At seventeen, Ed enlisted in the Marines. Danny followed soon after. They both became sergeants and fought in Vietnam.

When they came home, Ed and Danny went back to tuna fishing out of San Diego. From the late 1960s, well into the 1980s, the Cook brothers traveled the world on tuna vessels. Grand and gleaming white, many of the tuna ships looked more like yachts than fishing boats. They sailed exclusively in warm waters: off the coast of Mexico and Chile and Peru, through the Panama Canal to the coast of Venezuela, across the Pacific to Hawaii, sometimes even as far as New Zealand or Puerto Rico.

Those were the good days. The few snapshots the brothers had taken in those years showed tan, muscular young men standing shirtless on the deck of a ship, their sun-bleached hair blowing in a tropical breeze. They’d dive and swim off the sides of the boat and pick coconuts and limes on the islands. Wherever the ship was tied up, they’d be able to find a good beach and maybe a great beach bar where most of the fights were over who would pick up the tab.

Along the way, Ed and Danny got their engineering licenses, just like their dad. Each moved steadily up the hierarchy of fishing life. The Cook men were part of a large community of fishermen from San Diego, America’s top tuna port. For a long time, the fishing was good, and so was the money. But by the 1980s the industry was changing. Fishing had long been an international free-for-all. Now, most nations wanted to keep for themselves the profit and the jobs that their fishing grounds supplied. By the time the United States established its two-hundred-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (the EEZ) in 1976, many other nations were doing the same. The American tuna companies that for decades fished freely along the shores of foreign nations were now going out of business. Meanwhile, environmental regulations aimed at protecting marine mammals—particularly dolphins—had made it increasingly difficult to make a profit fishing for tuna in U.S. waters. San Diego fishermen began looking for work on foreign-flagged vessels. Some found it, but the jobs were scarce.

By the late 1980s, there was hardly any work left for what had long been a tight, proud community of San Diego tuna fishermen. But there were jobs in Alaska, increasingly in the remote Aleutian Island port of Dutch Harbor. Both brothers knew plenty of men from Southern California who were going north.

With foreign ships out of the newly established EEZ, the potential for American fishermen in Alaska was untapped. Adding to the boom were government incentives that encouraged the construction of new fishing boats or the conversion of preexisting ships into Bering Sea–ready vessels. And so far, the fishing grounds were delivering. There was crab, cod, pollack, and all sorts of groundfish—sole, mackerel, and perch. Big companies were running fleets of big ships and delivering the catch to plants right there in Dutch Harbor—or even processing it on board. Some of the boats in Alaska were hundreds of feet long. They all needed experienced engineers to keep them afloat.

The Cook brothers had worked on a number of different ships over the years in Alaska. It had only been a few months that they’d both been employed by the FCA, though. Ed had mixed feelings about the company. The people were nice enough, but the Warriorwas in poor repair compared to other ships he’d worked on. Right away, Ed had noticed that if the crew was inconvenienced by a watertight door, they would just tie it open when they were out at sea. That was goddamned lazy, he felt. And reckless. They were risking everyone’s lives just to save the effort of opening and closing a door a few dozen times a day. It was the Japanese influence on the boats, Ed thought. It seemed to him like the Japanese didn’t take safety seriously or respect American environmental regulations. He’d seen them dump dirty oil overboard at night.

Ed felt that the whole operation had low standards. There were constant problems with the sewage systems getting blocked up. On several occasions, Ed had seen raw sewage sloshing around on the hydraulic room floor. The damn pipes were in awful shape, covered with rust and held together with duct tape. Ed had tried to talk to the higher-ups in Seattle about the problems, and went as far as to send photos and videos he’d taken. He figured that, if they saw the boat’s true condition, they’d take care of things. But there wasn’t much of a reaction. As long as the fish were caught and processed and sold, no one seemed to care much about safety—or hygiene for that matter. He wouldn’t want to eat those fish. For God’s sake, Ed thought, the guys were pissing right on the floor of the factory. Ed had seen processors smoking on the assembly line. Sometimes the ash fell into the conveyor belt full of just-caught fish.

He’d tried to talk to management about it a couple times. “Don’t worry about it, you’re getting your paycheck aren’t you?” he was told.

“How about a little pride in our work?” Ed countered, “In the product we’re all out here breaking our backs for?”

The company’s attitude didn’t seem normal to Ed. He had worked for another big fishing company, Trident Seafoods, before signing up with FCA. One time a fish buyer had found a fly in a box of roe. Management was ready to launch a full CSI-style investigation. Was that an American fly or a Japanese fly? How did it get in that box? “This is high-quality product people are spending a lot of money for,” Ed’s boss had lectured the crew. It seemed to Ed that the FCA didn’t care as much about quality. As long as they could sell it, it was good enough.

“ED. ED, THERE’S A PROBLEM on the Ranger. You should come up to the wheelhouse.” It was the middle of the night when Ray Falante pounded on Ed’s cabin door.

Ed pulled on his clothes as fast as he could. When he got up to the bridge, Captain Scott was at the controls.

“What’s going on?” Ed asked.

“The Ranger’s sinking, Ed.”

Scott told his chief that the Ranger may have dropped a rudder. From what he’d been told, the flooding probably started in the rudder room. It was spreading fast.

Ed looked out into the darkness. The deck was covered with ice. It was blowing hard with big seas.

Captain Scott knew how close the two brothers were. The two men even looked alike, for Christ’s sake—they both had white beards, blue eyes, and round, soft faces that were always rosy red, even in the Alaskan winter. A lot of people had a hard time telling them apart, unless they were side by side. Then it was easy: Ed was the short one, just five foot ten to his brother Danny’s six foot two.

Earlier in the day, just before the Warrior left Dutch Harbor, Captain Scott had been on the phone with the Ranger.

Ed was fueling the boat when Scott yelled down to him: “Hey, Ed.”

“Yes, sir,” the chief hollered back up to the bridge.

“Your brother called.”

“He did? Well, what’d he say?”

Scott smiled. “To tell you that he loves you.”

“Well,” Ed had yelled back up. “If he calls again, sir, you tell him I love him, too!”

INSIDE THE NUMBER THREE LIFE RAFT the men were sitting in a circle with their backs against the inflated wall. The raft’s waterbed-like floor was wet and the men were cold. Their hands and feet were numb. Outside, the waves pounded relentlessly against the raft. It felt like a roller-coaster they couldn’t get off of. But at least they were alive. The Coast Guard knew where they were and had said they’d be back.

Fisheries observer Jay Vallee had been the first one in the raft. After the port-side number two raft—the one he was assigned to—was lost, there were more people on board than would fit in the remaining two rafts. Jay had told several crewmen that anyone who couldn’t fit inside a raft should tie themselves off to the side. It was something he remembered from his safety training back in Anchorage. Better to be in the water and at least attached to a target large enough for rescuers to see than to be alone in the Bering Sea.

Jay had crossed from the port to the starboard side of the ship and approached the bow rail. The stern, starboard raft—the Ranger’s number three raft—had just been launched and was moving up the side of the ship, bolting toward the bow as the ship plowed backward into the sea. It looked empty. Jay was petrified, but somehow he managed to focus. It felt almost like an out-of-body experience. He took a breath and jumped twenty feet down the side of the boat—and right through the doorway of the tented shelter. He landed on his feet, then fell back on his butt with his legs pointed toward the middle of the raft. He dislocated his right ankle, but, amazingly, he’d done it.

Soon afterward, Jay had helped to pull in a few of the Ranger’s processors, including David Hull. Jay could see that David still had his laptop bag with him. You’ve got to be kidding me, Jay thought, as David tumbled into the raft. Soon there were ten of them inside. Every other person except for Jay had been submerged in the water first and was then pulled in. They were wetter than Jay—and colder. He looked around. People were quiet. They looked scared. Jay’s suit fit, and he was dry. He had his PLB, which he knew was still signaling his position to satellites overhead. He was better off, Jay knew, than most of the guys he’d been working with for the past three weeks.

LIKE THE RANGER, THE WARRIOR SAILED with two federal fisheries observers every time it left port. Both Beth Dubofsky and Melissa Head were in their twenties and both had been working as observers since the previous summer. Beth and Melissa knew Gwen and Jay. All the observers assigned to FCA ships worked for the Anchorage-based observer contractor Saltwater Inc., whose employees stayed in the same bunkhouse when they were in Dutch Harbor. Now the Warrior’s female observers took charge of gathering supplies to treat potentially hypothermic survivors. The most important areas of the body for recirculating heat, they remembered, were the armpits and groin. The two women gathered blankets, and potatoes to warm in the galley’s microwave. They’d hold them against the bodies of any rescued Ranger crewmen.

In the first couple hours after he was woken up, Captain Scott had talked with both Captain Pete and David Silveira multiple times by SAT phone. At first the men didn’t sounded too panicked: “Come and get us, we’re taking on water,” the Warrior’s captain was told.

But as the night wore on, the calls from the foundering ship became more and more desperate. The Warrior’s captain was already running his ship at full speed toward the sinking site when he got a frantic call. It was about 4:20 A.M., and the Ranger had just lost power: “Hurry up! Hurry up! Get here as fast as you can. Now!”

Not long after, Scott heard the Ranger’s officers report that almost everyone was overboard—all but seven men. Some people hadn’t made it into the rafts. Exactly how many was unclear.

Everyone in the Warrior’s wheelhouse could listen in on the transmission between the sinking ship and the Coast Guard. They knew that additional help was on the way, but it wasn’t clear if it would come soon enough.

The Warrior was still an hour and a half away—fifteen or sixteen miles out—when Captain Scott spotted a blip on his radar screen.

Then, all of a sudden, the dot disappeared.

The Ranger was gone.

INSIDE THE NUMBER THREE LIFE RAFT, everyone was quiet. Along with nine other men, David Hull was sitting in a shallow puddle of freezing water that had accumulated on the raft’s floor. The bottom part of his survival suit was flooded and he was cold. But his main concern had turned from his own life to the safety of those who stayed longest on the sinking ship—especially Captain Pete. Pete was the first officer David had worked for when he signed up with the FCA several years before. He liked and respected the captain, who would often come down to the factory to help the greenhorns pack fish. David knew that, like the other officers, Captain Pete had considered it his duty to stay on the vessel until the very last minute.

There wasn’t much to say, and most of what the men were thinking didn’t seem worth saying out loud. On the other side of the raft from David, cook Eric Haynes was examining the rips in his gloves. They tore when he was trying to pull the raft back toward the ship on its painter line. He had rope burns on his hands and a bloodied thumb. Eric had to keep his fingers moving so they wouldn’t lock up from the cold. Every couple minutes, he pulled open his suit just below his chin and exhaled warm air inside. Outside, the seas seemed to be picking up. They know where we are, Eric thought. As long as we don’t flip over, the Coast Guard will be back for us.

The twelve people inside the Ranger’s number one life raft weren’t quite as lucky. Both rafts were the same make, designed for twenty people. Neither was overloaded. But the floor of the number one raft had filled with at least a foot of standing water. Though the people inside had tried, they couldn’t get the raft’s pump to work. One of the first men to reach the raft had ripped open the craft’s survival pack, and now the flares and other emergency tools were all soaked, most of them lost under the mass of limbs obscured in the murky water. No one had a radio, no one seemed to have a working light. Worst of all, many of the dozen people inside had succumbed to seasickness.

Among them was Gwen Rains. She had activated her personal locator beacon at least two hours before. Jay Vallee had set his off at the same time, and soon after, there’d been a SAT phone call checking up on him. Gwen was in the wheelhouse the whole time, but there wasn’t a second phone call. If someone called for Jay’s beacon, Gwen wondered, why didn’t they call for hers? Had they not picked up her signal? Or did they assume they were together?

Gwen looked at the men on the other side of the raft. She didn’t know where Jay was now, but he certainly wasn’t here. After only four days on the Ranger, she barely knew the names of anyone in the raft with her. There was Rodney, the assistant engineer, and the ship’s steward. Most of the Japanese crew. The fish master wasn’t among them, though. The last she’d seen of him he was sitting in the wheelhouse with a cigarette in his mouth, his survival suit falling open around his waist.

Gwen studied her beacon. Had she activated it correctly? Was the green light supposed to be blinking or the red one? She tried to pry the hard plastic cover off, but she couldn’t get a good grip with her hands inside her suit’s neoprene gloves. Finally, she ripped the plastic off with her mouth—and took a chip out of her front tooth in the process.

And yet she still couldn’t tell if the PLB was working. One guy she didn’t know came over from the far side of the raft and tried to help her. He took the beacon and looked it over. Everyone else was ignoring her. No one was talking, and many of the men had their eyes closed. The raft was pitching and jolting in the swells. It was already floating so low with all the seawater inside. What if the raft capsizes, Gwen worried. She had lost her strobe light while abandoning ship. It was on and blinking when she was on theRanger’s deck. But once she was in the water, it was gone. The beacon might save her life. It was the best signaling device they had besides the raft itself, which would be a small target in stormy conditions in the middle of the Bering Sea.

Gwen could feel all kinds of stuff sloshing against her in the water. She knew that the survival pack in the raft would have had food rations and water, as well as a flashlight, an emergency blanket, and seasickness medication. There were plenty of people who could have used it. Gwen was violently seasick, and she wasn’t the only one. There was no choice but to throw up straight into the life raft’s standing water. It was humiliating, but she’d never felt so ill in her entire life. At one point, half the people in the raft were vomiting into the freezing, foot-deep water.

In the distance, Gwen could hear what sounded like the buzz of a helicopter. She guessed they’d focus on helping the men in the water first. Gwen just hoped they saw her raft as well.

INSIDE THE WARRIOR’S WHEELHOUSE, Scott Krey and Raymond Falante were working the radios. They’d been on with the Coast Guard cutter Munro, the Communications Station in Kodiak, and the pilot on board the helicopter that had taken off from St. Paul Island.

“Have you heard anything about my brother?” Ed Cook asked Captain Scott.

He hadn’t, Scott told his chief. All he knew was that some guys were in life rafts. Others weren’t.

Ed stared at the sea. It was so rough out, so cold. Danny’s out there somewhere, he thought. He’s out there in that pitch black night.

Ed was listening in as Captain Scott talked to one of the FCA’s port engineers on the SAT phone: “We got twenty people in the water,” Scott reported. “A few people are in the raft. The helicopter’s on scene right now.”

It’s damn good luck that bird was up in St. Paul for crab season, Ed thought. Just really good luck.

Scott was still on the phone when Jayhawk Aircraft Commander Brian McLaughlin broke in over the VHF right around 6:00 A.M.

Warrior, Coast Guard copter 6007. Can you give me your present position, sir?”

“Hang on, I gotta go,” Scott told the company engineer as he put down the phone and picked up the VHF.

“My position: 5, 3 degrees, 5, 3.7 north. 1, 6, 9 degrees, 4, 8.8 minutes west,” the captain relayed.

“Roger, Captain. Copy 5, 3, 5, 3.7. 1, 6, 9, 4, 8.8. Is that right?”

“That’s roger.”

There was a long pause, and then the 60 aircraft commander hailed the Warrior once again.

Alaska Warrior, Rescue 6007.”

Alaska Warrior,” Scott responded.

“All right Captain, we’re headed toward you,” McLaughlin said. “How’s your ship riding right now?”

“It’s riding pretty good, pretty good.”

“Okay, we’re gonna drop some people off. We’ve got, I believe, thirteen on board right now. We’re gonna have to get them off as quickly as possible,” McLaughlin told the captain.

In the twenty years that he’d been fishing in Alaska, Captain Scott had seen plenty of injured crewmen airlifted off fishing boats by the Coast Guard. This would be trickier, but if the pilot thought it would work, it was worth a try.

“I’m going to need your deckhands to help us out a lot,” McLaughlin told the Warrior’s captain. “A lot of these people are nonresponsive, and/or holding on to the basket when we get them in there. You may have to be a little rough with them, but we need you to get them out of the basket as quickly as possible, so we can get them out and get back to the people out here. Out, copy?”

“Roger,” Scott answered. “Copy.”

If the chopper was dropping guys on their deck, the crew would need instructions, Ed knew. They would need to know that the basket had to touch the deck before they grabbed onto it. Otherwise, they could get a terrible shock from all the static buildup from the copter’s rotors.

“Captain, you want me to carry a message back for ya?” Ed asked.

“Tell them some of them are nonresponsive,” Scott said. “The basket drops, drag ’em up. Drag ’em up. Don’t worry about hurting them, get them out of there.”

From inside the Warrior’s wheelhouse, the men could hear the rotors approaching.

“There he is,” Ed said, just before McLaughlin’s voice broke through again on the VHF radio.

Alaska Warrior, Coast Guard 6007. Do you think you’ll be able to run downswell? Would your ride be any better at that point?”

“Yes it would,” Scott said. “I can turn.”

“All right, if you could run it downswell that’d probably be better for us as well to get on top of you.”

The wind and waves were coming from the northeast. Now Captain Scott steered the Warrior toward the southwest.

“How about our speed?” the captain asked.

“Pretty much keep it at clutch speed. As long as you have steerage, as long as you have control, you can’t be too slow for us….”

IT WAS 6:10 A.M. AS THE JAYHAWK approached the Warrior’s port side. The clap of the rotors grew to a thunderous roar as the machine settled into a hover over the trawler’s stern. Outside, it was still spitting snow and blowing hard.

When the door to the helicopter slid open, the crew on the Warrior’s trawl deck could make out a mass of red inside. They watched as the metal basket dropped out of the cabin, and slowly descended toward them with Evan Holmes inside.

He was terrified.

The Ranger’s factory manager had been the last person the Jayhawk had lifted out of the water. The cabin was already so crowded that flight mechanic Rob DeBolt told Evan to stay right inside the basket. There was nowhere else for him to sit.

Evan had been shocked at how packed the chopper was; he didn’t know a helicopter could hold that many people. With all the noise, he couldn’t hear what was going on. But he knew he was the last one. He’d only been in the Jayhawk for a couple minutes when DeBolt leaned over and yelled in his ear: “Hey, we’re going to drop you to the Warrior,” the Coastie told him. “Stay in the basket. Hold on.”

“What?” Evan said. “No! Put somebody else first.” He turned, and yelled to one of his crewmates. “You go! Tell me how it works out,” he tried to joke.

But it was obvious to Evan that it wasn’t up to him. He was going first.

As he was lifted out of the cabin, Evan could see the Warrior’s huge trawl net strewn out over the deck. There were buoys everywhere. The gantry seemed way too close as the two-hundred-foot ship pitched and rolled in the waves. Even the crew on the ship’s deck looked like they were barely holding on. Evan could see a few of their faces. He knew some of the guys. There was a big Samoan dude he liked. Oh, man, I hope he catches me. I do not want to smack the boat, Evan thought.

Evan cowered inside as the basket swung like a pendulum above the icy deck. He hugged his arms around his legs, trying to keep fully within the metal box. Jesus Christ, I just had my life saved, and now I’m gonna die getting banged against the goddamnedWarrior, he thought.

The deck grew steadily closer. On the flight to the Warrior, some of the Ranger’s crew members felt good enough to joke around a little in the back of the helo. “They’ll probably make us work,” someone had said. Evan didn’t doubt it. He didn’t want to get on the Warrior. He was halfway down when all of a sudden the basket started rising again. They were bringing him back up, Evan realized with relief. They’d changed their minds.

Evan reached the cabin door, and DeBolt steadied the basket against the edge.

Then, horribly, he was going back down. They were trying again. Evan closed his eyes. He didn’t want to see it coming; there was so much rigging, so much gear. He could hit the ship, the wheelhouse, one of the boat’s sharp, pointy antennas. The basket was spinning; he was spinning. He was scared shitless. There was water coming from all directions. It was so windy, Evan couldn’t tell if it was raining or if water was just being blown up from the ocean or down from the helicopter. The rotor wash was so powerful he couldn’t look up.

I’m more likely to get killed right now than I was back in the water, Evan thought. This seemed like a bad idea.

Then, suddenly he was moving back toward the chopper. DeBolt steadied the basket just below the open door while the pilots repositioned the helo over the front of the ship. Evan saw the Warrior’s crew running toward the bow.

Evan looked up toward the pilots. Through the aircraft window, he could see that one of them was shaking his head and slicing his hand across his throat. Moments later, the basket was pulled back into the cabin.

“Don’t do that again!” Evan shouted to the flight mech as soon as he was inside.

“Don’t worry, man,” DeBolt yelled back. “It’s not going to work.”

The 60 Jayhawk had been hovering over the Warrior for less than five minutes when, with the consensus of his crew, McLaughlin made the second tough call of the night: Lowering the fishermen to the Warrior was just too dangerous.

They would have to offload the men to the cutter Munro instead.

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