Daily Sitka Sentinel
One Sitka fisherman survived a night at sea crouched in a plastic fish tote and another spent the night floating in a survival suit after their boat overturned and sank about two miles off Cape Edgecumbe Friday afternoon.
A Coast Guard helicopter hoisted Ryan Harris, 19, to safety from his fish tote “lifeboat” by a Coast Guard helicopter at 4 p.m. Saturday, more than 24 hours after the 28-foot F/V Kaitlin Rae sank somewhere off Cape Edgecumbe.
Two hours earlier his crewmate, Stonie “Mac” Huffman, who had drifted all night in a survival suit, was rescued from a beach near Point Amelia. They were the only two people on the boat that sank.
They had not managed to get off a mayday before their boat sank, and the search for them started only after friends in Sitka reported them overdue Friday night.
Slightly scraped up but otherwise OK, Harris said today he is happy that both he and his buddy are alive.
“I’m glad to be here,” Harris said today.
“It’s phenomenal,” Sitka Mountain Rescue Director Don Kluting said today after helping in Saturday’s search.
“It’s truly a miracle they survived.”
Huffman was found on the beach 25 miles northwest of Sitka around 2 p.m. Saturday. He had been drifting in his survival suit since the boat overturned Friday until about 1 p.m. Saturday when he hit shore, Kluting said.
The fishing boat Nerka spotted Harris two hours later as he drifted in the four-by-four plastic bin offshore from Eagle Rock. He was hoisted to safety by a helicopter from Air Station Sitka.
Harris said Friday started out as a good day, as he and Huffman set out at 5 a.m. for a power trolling trip on the Kaitlin Rae, a drop-bow aluminum boat. The two were trying their luck around Cape Edgecumbe when disaster struck.
“We were doing pretty well,” Harris said. They were on track to haul in more than 100 cohos in one day, which had been a goal of his.
Around 1 p.m. the hydraulics gave out, and they drifted without power as they worked on repairs. Although they were able to fix the hydraulic system, they decided it would be best to pull their gear and head back into town around 2:30 p.m.
“We were taking some heavy waves,” Harris said of the conditions. “We went down a steep wave, we speared it, which put a lot of water in the bow of the boat.”
Immediately after that, the vessel was hit from the stern by another wave which tipped the boat on its port side, sending water to the port and destabilizing the drop-bow vessel.
Everything happened within seconds. There were two survival suits on board, but neither man was wearing one when the boat went down. Huffman handed one of them to Harris, but it hung up on the cabin door.
After the boat capsized the two men were able to climb onto the upturned hull.
“We had no radio, no cell phones,” Harris said. “A big wave came and almost knocked me loose.” Harris was wearing a float jacket and Huffman had no flotation. He was later able to grab onto a survival suit that had apparently floated up from the wreckage.
As the boat sank, the two were able to reach some empty fish totes that had washed loose and were floating nearby. Huffman stabilized a tote to allow Harris to climb inside. Despite their efforts they were unable to get Huffman into a tote. But Huffman was able to grab onto a tote lid for flotation, Harris said. With the waves reaching eight feet, the two were not able to stay together.
“As we were separating, I said, ‘We’re not going to die here,’” Harris said.
The last Harris saw of Huffman he was on the fish tote lid, drifting away.
(The Coast Guard later said that Huffman told them that the tote lid drifted away during the two hours that he struggled to get into the survival suit.)
“At that point I didn’t know if he was going to make it,” Harris said. “He was saying everything was going to be OK.”
Harris admitted to “having some fun” surfing the waves during the first few hours he was in the tote, but said he had to concentrate to keep it balanced in the seas. At one point the tote dumped him and he struck his head, but he was able to get back in and keep his balance for the remainder of the 26 hours until his rescue.
Harris said it was an ordeal to hold a squat position in the tote as he drifted at sea. At one point, he saw a passing fishing boat and yelled, but could not attract its attention.
Harris said the toughest part was not knowing the fate of his friend, and he shed a few tears over that at some points.
“I gave myself a pep talk,” Harris said. He kept repeating for four hours “I’m Ryan Hunter Harris and I’m not going to die here.” During his sleepless night, he sang “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and other songs to pass the time and keep up his spirits.
“I never thought I was going to die but I was worried about Mac,” he said.
When the two didn’t return as expected on Friday night, friends and family called the Coast Guard.
The Coast Guard dispatched a helicopter at 12:38 a.m. Saturday morning, and three others later that day. Alaska State Troopers and Sitka Mountain Rescue had four boats out searching Sitka Sound and the shoreline, Biorka Island to Hayward Strait, Kruzof Island, St. Lazaria and Cape Edgecumbe, SMR Director Don Kluting said.
In the end, it was the Alaska State Troopers aboard the M/V Courage who found Huffman, an experienced fisherman in his mid-40s. Kluting said Huffman had reached shore at Point Amelia about an hour before troopers spotted him waving on the beach. Otherwise he was adrift or swimming in his survival suit for the entire time, Kluting said. Harris said he believed that the survival suit that had been caught on the door was freed when the boat sank, and Huffman was able to don it.
The F/V Nerka was en route from Shelikof Bay to Salisbury Sound when they heard about the search. Joel Brady-Power, skipper of the Nerka, said they were looking for survivors when they came upon a floating tote about two miles offshore from Kruzof.
It turned out to be empty. “My heart sank,” Brady-Power said today, recalling that moment.
He was radioing their find of the empty tote when they spotted a second tote, which also appeared to be empty. Somebody said, “Wait a minute – there’s somebody in that one,” Brady-Power said. In the distance they could see someone “waving frantically.”
The Coast Guard helicopter got there just ahead of the Good Samaritan vessel, and hoisted Harris aboard the helicopter.
Harris said he was cold and at first couldn’t straighten his legs from having been cramped up on his toes for so long. He said he was dried off by the rescuers, warmed up, and taken back to Sitka, where an awaiting ambulance took him to Mt. Edgecumbe Hospital for a quick checkup.
He said today he was “almost 100 percent.” Harris showed off his hands, blistered from clutching the tote, and a cut above his eye from being struck by the overturning tote.
The Coast Guard said it took a multi-agency effort to rescue the two men.
“I really want to thank all our partner agencies who came on it,” Coast Guard spokesman Grant DuVuyst said today from Juneau District headquarters. “As remote as Southeast can be, it’s important we have team work when lives are at stake.”