Best Speed

The water was still, the surface smooth. The Coast Guard had a term for the conditions, FAC: flat-ass calm. When the ocean was this way, it felt more like floating in a lake than in the Bering Sea. A very cold lake, thought Operations Boss Jimmy Terrell. Slabs of broken ice were scattered across the glassy ocean. It was Saturday afternoon, and though the sun was close and bright on the horizon, the temperature hadn’t nudged above freezing all week. Terrell had been stationed on board the cutter Munro for a year and a half, and he’d never seen conditions quite like it before.

The 378-foot ship was patrolling near the Arctic ice edge, up near the Pribilof Islands. They’d turned off the engines. It was unheard-of to drift in the Bering, but the ice edge had pushed far south this season and the wind had been from the north forweeks. Deep in the ship the crew could still feel the hum of the generators, but on deck everything was still. It was quiet, like floating near shore in a sheltered cove when the breeze is blowing out to sea.

Terrell was thirty, from El Paso, Texas. Ever since his graduation from the Coast Guard Academy seven years earlier he’d been following Craig Lloyd, a twenty-four-year Coastie and the Munro’s captain. They’d worked together on the Mellon, a 378-foot cutter out of Seattle. Then, both men transferred to Alameda, California, where Lloyd served as the chief of cutter forces for the entire West Coast. Terrell was his admin guy. The placements were just a coincidence, but the two joked that Terrell had become Captain Lloyd’s permanent lackey.

By August 2006, both had moved to the Munro. Under Captain Lloyd’s command, the ship had gained the reputation of being one of the best run boats in the fleet. It was a good thing, because the Bering Sea wasn’t exactly the most popular place to spend a couple years working on board a Coast Guard cutter. San Diego, the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico—any of them sounded a whole lot better than winter in Alaska.

The Munro’s crew numbered 160. Under Captain Lloyd was Executive Officer Mike Gatlin (“XO” the crew called him), and Operations Boss Terrell (“Ops”), who was responsible for the ship’s operational strategy, and served as a mentor to theMunro’s dozen junior officers, most of them recent graduates of the Academy. The majority of the crew was enlisted men and women, many of them on their first deployment, some of them only eighteen or nineteen years old and just weeks out of boot camp in Cape May, New Jersey.

Like Terrell, the typical crewman was serving a two-year billet on board the Munro. The previous fall, the ship’s home port moved permanently north from Alameda, California, to Kodiak. Most of the crew kept homes in town, where they’d stay for the months between deployments while the ship remained tied up at the base’s pier. The Munro had set sail for a two-month deployment less than two weeks before. On the day the ship left port, wives, husbands, boyfriends, and girlfriends clustered on the broad, wooden pier, waving good-bye as the huge white ship backed away from the dock and slowly vanished down the mouth of Womens Bay.

Reveille was at 6:45 A.M. The days were tightly scheduled: meals, training, cleaning, more training. The Munro’s mission included law enforcement, which involved at-sea boardings of fishing vessels. The crew was constantly conducting drills: fighting mock fires, controlling hypothetical flooding, or rescuing plastic dummies flung over the side of the ship. The drills were timed, and the minutes that the victim had been overboard were piped over the shipwide intercom system. When the drill was complete, the crew were told if they passed or failed. More than seven minutes meant the dummy was near death when it was hauled back aboard—and that the drill would likely be repeated in coming days. When the weather was cooperating, the Munro’s crew assisted the helicopter team deployed aboard the ship with its own flight training regimen.

The cutter often felt like a floating technical college: On the bridge, young Coasties learned to drive the ship, to navigate, and to read the charts and constant streams of weather data that kept the boat safe in one of the world’s most violent oceans. Five decks down, in the engine room, others learned the ship’s mechanics: how to spot the earliest signs of an engine problem or oil leak, how to manage the ship’s tanks and optimize its fuel use. Meanwhile, other seamen learned to cook, clean, and dispose of the ship’s trash. Senior enlisted men apprenticed young officers on managing the ship’s supplies and finances. Everyone had a job to do.

The Munro’s primary mission, though, the duty that came before all others, was search and rescue.

Captain Lloyd had spent a total of six years in Alaska and the Munro was his third Alaskan ship. He knew the Bering and its traffic well, and he’d chosen the ship’s ice-edge position out of concern for the fishing fleet. If he kept his ship north of the fleet, he could sprint downwind in case of an emergency. He’d make better speed if he wasn’t fighting the seas. And the strategy had another advantage as well—pounding into the swells in cold conditions can cause sea spray to turn to ice on the bow, the rails, and any other exposed area of the ship. Fishermen call it “making ice,” and it can have catastrophic effects on a boat’s stability. Terrell had experienced it several times back on the Mellon, where a senior officer had taught new crewmen about the danger of ice by warning that a half-inch of buildup around a 378’s pilothouse has an effect equal to parking a Ford F-150 on the house’s roof. When more than a few centimeters of ice built up, crews were sent out on deck with wooden mallets and baseball bats to bang it off, which was a dangerous undertaking in itself. (On the Mellon, those deicing details were named after professional baseball teams.)

By late March, the crab season was ending. The ice edge was nudging so far down that the opilio boats had been pushed out of some of their favorite northern fishing grounds. There were a lot of ships farther south, though—trawlers, mostly. Many of them were factory boats with large crews of twenty, forty, even fifty men headed to fishing grounds hundreds of miles from the closest port. The Coasties called them draggers, and they weren’t always the most popular boats to deal with. The Coast Guard didn’t need a specific reason to board a fishing vessel at sea, but they often targeted boats that had avoided the Coast Guard’s voluntary inspections in Dutch Harbor or ended their dockside visit with holes in their safety checklists.

The Munro would radio the fishing vessel that they were coming, then send a half dozen crew in one of the cutter’s two orange, rubber Zodiacs, which were stored in cradles on either side of the ship. The boardings usually kept the boat away from fishing—and profit—for a couple hours. Not too many fishermen were thrilled to see a Coast Guard cutter on the horizon.

THE VAST MAJORITY OF FISHING BOATS are classified as “uninspected vessels” and aren’t required to be classed and load-lined like cargo carriers and passenger ships. Nongovernmental classification societies determine construction standards for most large boats and periodically examine them to be sure they remain up to code. Among those standards is the load line test, which ensures a boat has a good watertight envelope. Go to any large marina, and you’ll notice physical load lines—painted stripes around a ship’s hull right above the waterline. A load line test establishes how low a ship can safely sit in the water, how heavily it can be loaded, and how the weight can be safety distributed—as well as that different compartments of a large boat are watertight from one another. Class standards, meanwhile, focus on the upkeep of a ship’s engines and electrical systems. With just a few exceptions, though, fishing vessels are immune from those standards.

Coast Guard officers in Dutch Harbor do regularly examine most of the boats in the Bering Sea fishing fleet. Unlike the inspections for cargo ships and passenger vessels, however, the fishing boat examinations are technically voluntary and don’t focus on the seaworthiness of the ships. What they do focus on is safety equipment. Maybe the Coast Guard can’t prevent a boat from sinking, but at least they can give the fishermen a decent chance at survival if it does.

At the request of vessel owners, once every two years Coast Guard fishing vessel examiners in Dutch Harbor board most boats in the fleet and fill out a safety equipment checklist. Ships are required to have life rafts sufficient to carry everyone on board, as well as a survival suit for each crew member. (The spongy coveralls are wide-legged and force the wearers to shuffle when they walk. They’re often called “Gumby” suits, after the stop-motion clay character who walks the same way.) During each biennial inspection, the bright red suits are pulled from their individual bags and spread on the deck of the ship to be examined for tears and wear and to see if the zippers are in working order. The Coasties check if the ship has emergency flares, fire extinguishers, and an emergency position-indicating radio beacon (EPIRB).

Every boat should have this device, which can cost more than $1,000 and which sends a satellite signal with the ship’s location and identification number when activated. Most are properly installed on an outside wall of the wheelhouse. Dead batteries are common, though. New Coast Guard fishing vessel examiners—especially those who are used to working with inspected vessels—are often surprised by how little attention some fishing boats pay to safety. Those who’ve been around for a while know things are a lot better than they used to be.

Before the early 1990s, even the most basic safety equipment was often absent on Alaskan fishing boats. Ships regularly went to sea with no life rafts, no survival suits—no way of letting anyone know when the worst was about to happen. Then, as today, many of the hired crew were novices, men who had little experience with the sea or with judging a boat’s seaworthiness, certainly with no firsthand experience of the particular hazards of Alaska, with its unforgiving cold and freezing seas.

Peter Barry was one of those young men. It was the summer of 1985 and he was nineteen years old, looking for an adventure out West before returning to his junior year at Yale. Peter was tall, six foot three, and slender, with a thick brush of blond bangs that swooped across his forehead. He spent a number of weeks working on the “slime line” in one of the Kodiak canneries. When a strike erupted among the mostly Filipino workforce in midsummer, Peter didn’t want to cross the picket line. Instead, he started walking the docks and soon met Jerald Bouchard, captain of the Western Sea, a fifty-eight-foot wooden purse seiner that sailed with a five-man crew and had been fishing for salmon in northwestern waters since before the end of World War I.

Bouchard had just lost a deckhand. He offered Peter the job.

A few weeks later, another boat found Peter’s body. He was floating facedown in the water, three miles offshore on the backside of Kodiak Island. He was dressed only in jeans and an old-fashioned Mae West–style life preserver.

The Western Sea, it turned out, had no life raft and no survival suits. There was no Mayday call. The first clue anyone had of a problem on the seventy-year-old ship was the discovery of the body, which was identified through a letter found in the pants pocket. It was from Peter’s college girlfriend.

Despite an extensive search by the local Coast Guard, all that was found of the salmon boat was odd debris, a piece of the wheelhouse, and a life ring printed with the ship’s name.

Several weeks later, two more bodies were found. One of them was that of a twenty-five-year-old crewman from Washington State, also a summer worker. The other was that of Captain Jerald Bouchard, whose decomposed remains were spotted floating in the ocean and recovered by crew of the cutter Munro, which was on patrol near Kodiak at the time. A toxicology exam revealed that the captain had cocaine in his system when he died.

PETER BARRY’S STORY WASN’T THAT DIFFERENT from tragedies that were happening every year. It was a predictable formula: a captain with minimal regard for safety; an inexperienced crew member; and an old, undermaintained boat, often fishing in waters more dangerous than its size or condition warranted. Barry was one of 102 people killed on fishing boats in U.S. waters that year.

But Peter Barry was different from all those other fishermen. He was an Ivy League student. His father, Robert Barry, was a senior diplomat in the U.S. State Department. And his mother, Peggy, was a woman who would not allow her son’s death to be dismissed as just another accident—nor tolerate the idea that the tragedy was either bad luck or God’s will, as so many people would say about boats and men lost at sea.

The Barrys heard again and again that fishing was a dangerous business, that their son’s death was a travesty, but that there was nothing to be done. They were told a ship at sea is at the mercy of the elements, that these things happen all the time, and that everyone who gets on a boat up north should know what they’re getting into—that their fate is out of their hands. Fate? Peggy Barry thought. This boat had no life raft. It had no survival suits. This wasn’t fate. A man can’t survive in those temperatures for even an hour. The way she saw it, her son’s death was criminal.

The Barrys began a campaign to mobilize elected officials, safety professionals, and the families of other lost fishermen in support of federal legislation to improve safety in the fishing fleet. Safety advocates had pushed for similar legislation in the past with no success. The fishing industry lobby was just too powerful, contributing hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to congressmen from Washington State and Alaska, most of whom remained opposed to increased regulation of commercial fishing.

The data were on the side of safety: In the mid-1980s, more than one hundred people were dying in commercial fishing accidents each year. Meanwhile, fishing vessels were the single major category of boat whose seaworthiness was not under government purview. It was clear that increased federal regulation had made a difference for other vessels. Small ferries and tourist boats, for example, had been unregulated until the 1950s, when a string of highly publicized disasters led Congress to act. Within a few years, the average annual fatality rate for that class of passenger boat had fallen from twenty-nine to five. Back then, boat owners had argued that the higher cost of meeting safety requirements would put them out of business (of course, fifty years later, we suffer no lack of duck boats and sunset cruises). Fishing vessel owners had long made the same financial argument. This time, though, the timing was right for safety advocates.

By the mid-1980s, the fishing industry was in an insurance crisis: High casualties had driven up insurance prices so much that half the ships in the Alaskan fleet could no longer afford their annual premiums. Fishing vessel owners wanted Congress to cap the amount injured fishermen (or family members of the deceased) could be awarded in a court case. The American Trial Lawyers Association was against the cap, which would limit their profits right along with awards for fishermen and their families. Both sides had lobbyists lined up to fight to the death.

The conflict created an opening for safety advocates like Peggy Barry, who helped to develop a safety bill that included an insurance cap (a sweetener to gain the support of boat owners). The trial lawyers shot that bill down. But Barry and her supporters didn’t give up. They developed another bill; this one focused exclusively on safety. The Commercial Fishing Industry Vessel Safety Act passed on September 9, 1988.

Because of Peter Barry, every commercial fishing vessel in the United States today is required to carry safety equipment: life rafts, survival suits (for ships operating in cold water), signal flares, fire extinguishers, and a registered EPIRB. Emergency alarms and bilge pumps are mandatory on all ships, and crew are required by law to conduct regular safety drills. The results have been striking. Between 1990 and 2006, the annual fatality rate among commercial fishermen across the United States fell by 51 percent. Boats were still sinking—but men were surviving.

And yet the number of ships going down had barely changed at all. In the average year, 119 U.S. fishing boats are lost. That’s one boat gone every three days. Most years, those losses are responsible for significantly more than half of the total fishing deaths (falls overboard and equipment-related accidents account for most of the rest). It was a source of frustration for some in the Coast Guard—among them fishing vessel examiners Chris Woodley and Charlie Medlicott.

Both were longtime Coast Guard men. Woodley had spent most of his twenty-year career moving back and forth between Alaska and Washington State. The Coast Guard’s operating philosophy holds that diversity of geography and job experience is good, that moving constantly broadens a Coastie’s experience and makes that person more valuable at their next post. But Woodley had grown up in Alaska. He went to graduate school in Seattle and wrote his master’s thesis on impediments to safety improvements in the fishing industry. Even when he was based in Washington, Woodley spent a lot of time in Dutch Harbor, traveling north to help local inspectors like Charlie Medlicott at the start of the busiest fishing seasons. Most years, Woodley watched the Super Bowl with a bunch of fishermen at one of the town’s bars.

Woodley and Medlicott had seen so many boats go down. Sometimes the sinkings were mysteries. The ship seemed as good as any other in the fleet; it had a competent captain, an experienced crew, a seemingly stable construction—and still it disappeared deep in the Bering. More often, boat losses fit a pattern. Especially with the crab boats. The damned things were so often overloaded by captains who didn’t read their own stability booklet (loading guidelines prepared by a marine architect) or maybe just didn’t care what it said. It was a recipe for disaster: a boat weighed down with crab, empty pots stacked high on deck—much higher than the architect had ever intended—and bad weather. The boat rolled, capsized, and sank.

By the late 1990s, Woodley and Medlicott had had enough.

Under U.S. Code, the Coast Guard has the authority to board any U.S.-flagged vessel, examine it, and—if the boat poses a threat to the environment, to commerce, or to human life—prevent that ship from leaving port. It was an authority that was hardly ever acted on in the Coast Guard. Mostly, the Coasties didn’t want to piss people off. The other services call them “Boy Scouts with Boats.” Most Army or Navy guys mean it as a jab, but many in the Coast Guard are Boy Scout types, and proud of it. These are men and women, after all, who at a young age decided they wanted nothing more than to become professional rescuers. They wanted stability and structure, the honor of the military, but maybe didn’t want to go to war. They wanted to be the good guys. Why would they go out of their way to board boats against the owners’ will when it wasn’t really part of their job? When the law on the issue was anything but clear?

How about to save some lives? Woodley thought.

In October 1999 he and Charlie Medlicott started their own experiment, boarding every Bering Sea crab boat before it left port. A shocking number were overloaded. And it was tough for captains to argue when the inspectors pointed out a discrepancybetween the number of pots on deck and the number authorized by the ship’s own stability booklet. The captains pulled pots off, left them stacked at the dock, and returned to port with their boats intact.

It didn’t take long to see a difference. By January 2005, there hadn’t been a Bering Sea crab boat lost in five years. Charlie Medlicott was the law, but he’d been around long enough to be respected, even liked, by a lot of local fishermen. He was in his mid-forties, with ruddy cheeks, wild eyes, and a bow-legged stride. Charlie knew the fleet, knew the boats’ histories and challenges. He wasn’t above talking out a problem over a beer in the bar.

Charlie was different from many of the Coasties Dutch Harbor fishermen encountered, often young officers who’d never been in Alaska before they got stuck with this assignment, and who’d never be back after their year-long hardship post was up (like St. Paul, the assignment to Dutch was one the Coasties reported to without their families, for only a year at a time). Charlie, on the other hand, loved Dutch Harbor. He was fascinated by the place from the first time he landed there—the weather, the characters, all the big boats. He was a boat guy, after all. He’d served for years in the Coast Guard, worked at the small boat station in Juneau, and on the Liberty, a 110-foot patrol boat. He got out after that. He fished for a couple of years and then worked for a company selling marine supplies and safety equipment, packing life rafts. In 1993 he got back in the Coast Guard as a civilian employee. Since then, he’d been bouncing back and forth between Anchorage and Dutch Harbor. He knew a lot of people there; he was part of the community.

Charlie wasn’t coy when he ran into Gary Edwards at the hotel bar at the Grand Aleutian one evening in January 2005. “I’ll be down tomorrow morning to check your boat,” he told the captain of the crabber Big Valley, which was scheduled to leave Dutch Harbor to fish for opilio up near St. Paul Island. Gary was well-known around Dutch. He was probably the only guy in rural Alaska who regularly dressed in a tweed jacket and a beret and kept a Buddha shrine on his boat, complete with burning incense. In two previous instances, both men knew, the Big Valley had been overloaded when the Coasties came down to the dock, and Gary was forced to remove pots before leaving port.

“Sure. See you then,” Gary said to Charlie in the hotel.

But the next morning when Charlie got down to the pier, the Big Valley was gone. Not long after, he heard the news: The ship had sunk. Gary was dead, along with four of his five deckhands.

The lone survivor was a crewman who had been asleep in his bunk when the Big Valley rolled over on its side—and failed to roll back up. The man had his survival suit with him in his cabin and put it on before he went up on deck. He got into the water and found his way to the boat’s life raft. A few hours later, a Coast Guard HH-60 Jayhawk predeployed to St. Paul plucked him out of the ocean. Two bodies were recovered soon after: One fisherman had failed to get the hood of his survival suit over his head; the second never got his suit zipped up all the way. The other three men, including Gary, were never found. The survivor was the only one of the men on board who had taken a safety course.

It didn’t take long to count the pots back at the dock. The Big Valley’s stability booklet approved the ninety-two-foot ship to carry thirty-one 600-pound crab pots on deck, and 5,000 pounds of bait below. The crabber left Dutch with fifty-five pots, each of them closer to 700 pounds. It was carrying almost 11,000 pounds of bait. What an asshole, Charlie thought. What an idiot. Gary sure was a character, though. People would miss him. They’d say he ran into shit luck, and probably that God took him before his time.

THE MOON WAS ALMOST FULL over the cutter Munro. On the lookout deck, two crewmen scanned the modest waves. They’d grown bigger in recent hours, but it was still relatively calm near the ice edge. It was 2:52 A.M. when a petty officer standing night duty answered the phone in Combat, a cramped compartment in the belly of the ship lit mostly by the green glow of computer screens. It was District Command in Juneau: A large trawler with forty-seven people on board was taking on water approximately 150 miles south of the Munro’s position.

Less than a minute later, Operations Specialist Erin Lopez was shaken awake in her rack.

“OS1, we have a Mayday case!” the young seaman told her. “You need to come down.” Like Ops Boss Jimmy Terrell, Lopez was from Texas. The twenty-six-year-old was the only person on the Munro who had graduated from the Coast Guard’s Maritime Search and Rescue Planning School. Tonight she’d be the ship’s Air Direction Controller (ADC)—in charge of the radios and communications with the Coast Guard aircraft. In seconds, Lopez was out of her bunk. Without changing out of her pajamas, she slipped into her boat shoes and ran the one level down to Combat.

Lopez’s boss, Chief Luke Cutburth, called her a “SAR dog,” a moniker she accepted as a badge of honor. It was obvious to Cutburth that the younger OS ate, slept, and breathed search and rescue. Lopez loved the strategy of juggling data to form a rescue plan. She thrived under pressure. Cutburth could relate.

In his off time, he competed in pro mountain-bike competitions. Meanwhile, Lopez was training for a half-Ironman. She is tiny, a self-described “five foot nothin’,” with long brown hair that she pulled back in a firm ponytail. She’d secured Coast Guard sponsorship for her upcoming race and impressed some of the less coordinated crew members with her endurance on the Munro’s single treadmill. The gym was in the very bottom of the ship’s bow. It was easy enough to get vertigo just standing down there, but Lopez managed to balance on the jolting exercise machine for hours at a time. Back in Kodiak, she taught a weekly spinning class at the air station’s gym. She’d spent the previous evening helping to make Easter goody bags for the crew. The effort had been planned far in advance, with a shopping trip to Kodiak’s Wal-Mart before the Munro left port. She’d done it the year before, too, pacing every level of the ship early on that Sunday morning to leave the homemade candy packets next to each pillow. It was a small thing, but she knew it’d make people happy to wake up on Easter morning to that little surprise.

Lopez opened the door to the dark control room. Formally, the space was known as the Combat Information Center (CIC) but most of the crew preferred just “Combat.” The dark, cool cabin is the Munro’s war room, the brain of the ship. It is where they collect intel on nearby vessels to prepare for boardings, control the helicopter operations, and make decisions on any law enforcement or search and rescue mission. It was Operations Boss Jimmy Terrell’s home—and Erin Lopez’s.

The watchstander was on the radio with an officer from the sinking ship, the Alaska Ranger. Lopez took over. Could he tell anything about the rate of flooding? she asked.

It was in the rudder room. They couldn’t keep up with it—the water was rising too fast. They’d already given up on the pumps and the fishing vessel’s crew members were in their survival suits.

The voice on the other end of the transmission was clear and even, but Lopez knew that didn’t mean the situation was under control. She’d worked for four years as a search and rescue specialist on the East Coast, and had already spent close to two years on theMunro. Most often when you got a panicked voice screaming “Mayday, Mayday!” it was some rube who’d run out of gas. The more experienced captains—and they were mostly experienced guys up here in Alaska—would be more likely to calmly report “Uh, Coast Guard, we got a little problem here”—even when their boat was already halfway underwater.

By 2:55 A.M., the Munro’s watchstanders had finished copying down the critical information and made the necessary calls. They called Jimmy Terrell, Captain Lloyd, and the engine room. Less than five minutes later, Lopez felt the Munro jolt and then bound forward at flank speed. The ship’s engineers had switched the Munro from its standard Fairbanks Morse diesel engines to two Pratt and Whitney jet engines, huge turbines similar to those that power a 707 airplane. The turbines would suck down two thousand gallons of fuel an hour, as opposed to the two hundred gallons burned by the standard diesels. On the diesels the ship maxed out at 17 knots. The turbines could deliver 27—officially. With the wind and waves blowing their way and the engineers pushing their equipment for everything it had, the ship was soon speeding south at 30 knots, close to 35 miles per hour. They were four and a half hours away from the Alaska Ranger. As planned, the sprint would all be downwind.

LIEUTENANTS TJ SCHMITZ AND GREG GEDEMER were asleep in their racks when the phone rang in their tiny windowless cabin. The two men shared a four-man berth on the 02 deck of the ship, one level below the bridge and just aft, or behind, the captain’s private stateroom. They had a private toilet and shower, a luxury on a ship. Both Schmitz, thirty-nine, and Gedemer, thirty-three, were helicopter pilots, trained to fly the Coast Guard’s HH-65 Dolphin. (The first letter indicates the mission: in this case H is the military’s code for search and rescue. The second H stands for “helicopter.” The number represents that the Dolphin was the sixty-fifth helicopter design, or model, accepted by the U.S. military.) A smaller, lighter aircraft than the HH-60 Jayhawk, the Dolphin was slight enough to take off and land from the Munro’s basketball-court-size deck.

Schmitz and Gedemer were part of Kodiak’s ALPAT shop, short for Alaska Patrol, and that’s why they were stationed on the island. The larger Jayhawk helicopter was always the first aircraft to respond to search and rescue calls directly from Kodiak—it was bigger, tougher, and had a much greater range. In Alaska, range is probably the most important attribute of an effective search and rescue vehicle. Of course, if for some reason every 60 aircraft were already in use, a 65 team could launch on a call from Kodiak. For the most part, though, the 65 crews were in Kodiak to train and prepare for deployment on Coast Guard ships patrolling the North Pacific.

Every winter fishing season, two ALPAT pilots, along with a team of several ALPAT flight mechanics and one ALPAT rescue swimmer, were stationed on board Coast Guard cutters during their Bering Sea patrols. Few men looked forward to the winter assignment, though the Munro was better than most ships. Schmitz had told the scheduler that he’d rather spend sixty days on the Munro than forty-five on another boat. He got his wish. This deployment would be his last during his time in Alaska. He’d be partnered with Gedemer, who had arrived in the state just a few months before.

Schmitz had served for a decade as an Army pilot before joining the Coast Guard. He’d been stationed in Bosnia in the late 1990s while his wife and baby daughter were back in the States. When he got home, Schmitz put in an application with the Coast Guard. It wasn’t an unusual move. More than a quarter of all Coast Guard aviators are “prior service,” meaning they have previously served in the Army, Navy, or Air Force. The months at sea weren’t easy on Schmitz’s wife and kids, who were left alone in a small, cold Alaskan town. Still, it could have been much harder. It could have been eighteen months in Iraq.

SCHMITZ HAD BEEN UP LATE the night before. He was waiting for word that Shawn Tripp’s Jayhawk crew was safely back in St. Paul. If the larger helicopter got into trouble between St. Paul and Dutch Harbor, the Munro’s 65 Dolphin would be the rescue aircraft.

Meanwhile, Gedemer had gone to bed early. Saturday was “morale night” on the Munro, which meant pizza for dinner, often creatively prepared by a group of volunteers from the crew. Then there’d often be some all-crew activity scheduled: a casino night or bingo game. There was no real gambling allowed on the ship—and no alcohol permitted on board. They’d have prizes, though. Tonight, the incentive was a good one: a free dinner out in Dutch Harbor.

Erin Lopez was the cochair of the morale committee. The evening’s activity, though, wasn’t her idea. It came directly from Captain Lloyd. He was a big supporter of the morale efforts and made some himself. The captain was known to throw on a cook’s white shirt on Sunday mornings, stand behind the griddle in the galley, and take custom-omelet orders from the crew. After dinner on Saturday, the pipe came down that the crew should report to the mess deck for “The Number-10 Can Challenge.” The rules were simple. Three-person teams would volunteer to get a paint-bucket-size can of food from the ship’s galley—with the label removed. When the captain said “go,” the team would open the can and start eating. The first team with an empty can would win the contest.

One of the ALPAT mechanics, Logan Cole, wanted to organize a team. TJ Schmitz bowed out: No way was he doing it. He’d watch. Cole tried to convince another ALPAT flight mechanic, Al Musgrave. “No, no,” Musgrave said. He didn’t want to be the one to let the team down if they got something nasty. But pilot Greg Gedemer was game, as was Abram (Abe) Heller, the ALPAT crew’s twenty-three-year-old rescue swimmer. The trio pried off the oversized can top to face a vat of cold baked beans. Gedemer must have wolfed down 3 pounds. It looked a lot better than what some of the other groups ended up with: pickles, potatoes, apple-pie filling, and—worst of all, Gedemer thought—beets. That team had to drink the juice as well. The ALPAT crew came in third out of eight teams.

SIX HOURS AFTER THE CONTEST, Gedemer was woken up by the ship’s phone. He rolled out of his rack and picked up. It was Ops Boss Terrell. Gedemer handed the receiver to Schmitz, who as the more senior pilot was the aircraft commander on this patrol. Soon after, he felt the ship jolt forward and start tearing south through the swells with a high-pitched whistle. They were up on “the birds,” the ship’s 18,000-horsepower turbine engines.

Schmitz was the first one out the door and down to Combat to meet Terrell. Gedemer followed a few minutes later. “Do you know something I don’t?” Schmitz asked the younger pilot when he showed up in the control center. Gedemer was already dressed out in his orange dry suit.

Schmitz stayed in Combat while Gedemer went to wake up the flight mechanics, who slept in a ten-man berth three flights down from the pilots’ cabin. Then he made his way aft toward the hangar. The place was a mess. The ALPAT shop had their own small lounge just forward of the flight deck: It served as their workspace, their storage locker, and their clubhouse. They’d been watching DVDs of the television show Heroes in there the night before. The door of the small ALPAT fridge had busted open and food was everywhere. Cereal had spilled all over the floor. Gedemer had spent his first couple years out of boot camp on Coast Guard ships. You always think you’re secured for sea, he remembered, until the first big storm. In this case, it was a man-made storm: the ship on turbines in rough seas. He started straightening things up, securing their snacks and extra gear.

Around the corner in the hangar, the four mechanics were beginning to prep the aircraft. Greg Beck was the head guy, then there was Logan Cole, Al Musgrave, and a newer mech who wasn’t Alaska-qualified yet. He’d help out in the hangar, but he wouldn’t be flying on any real cases on this patrol. The mechanics had come up with their own rotation schedule. One man was “on” until he flew, either in training or on a case. Then it was the next man’s turn. They were free to arrange the system for themselves, and this seemed the fairest, especially in the Bering Sea, where they might easily go a whole week when the conditions were outside the limits for training flights.

Al Musgrave was happy with the system. In his experience, Coast Guard people were pretty good about coming up with a plan that made sense and was fair. Musgrave was from Barbourville, Kentucky. It wasn’t the type of place where kids thought about joining the Coast Guard or where many people had even heard much about the service. Musgrave graduated from high school in 1997 and enrolled in the engineering program at the University of Louisville, three hours from his hometown. By the end of his freshman year, he felt directionless. He was partying more than studying. He paid a visit to the city’s Coast Guard recruiting office. If the country had been at war, he probably would have dropped out of school and joined the Army or the Marines. But it was the late 1990s, and things were pretty quiet. The Coast Guard sounded good. Wartime, peacetime, it didn’t matter: Coasties did their jobs every day. Six months later, Musgrave was at boot camp in Cape May.

His first assignment was a year-long detail on the Midgett, a 378-foot cutter based in Seattle. He timed it right: The ship was slated for the next over-the-horizon deployment, to the Persian Gulf to enforce the U.S. trade embargoes against Iraq. It was a pretty great job for a kid two years out of high school. The ship made port calls across the Middle East and Southeast Asia; the seamen were able to walk around foreign cities and try interesting foods. Musgrave hung around with the ship’s ALPAT crew. By the time he got back to Seattle, he’d decided he wanted to be a helicopter flight mechanic.

Musgrave went to A School—the several-month-long training program that qualifies a new Coastie for a specific job—and afterward found himself stationed in North Bend, Oregon. There wasn’t much action there. The small boat stations handled most of the rescues on the rugged Oregon coast. Musgrave’s aircraft would often just be hovering above, taking video for the Coast Guard’s public relations department. A couple times he helped deliver a pump to a boat taking on water. Once he rescued a surfer stranded on a rock after the ocean got a little too big for him. He’d never really been involved in anything major, though.

By the time Musgrave got his orders north to Kodiak in 2004, he was married with a little girl. The family moved into a house on base and joined the Mormon church in town. Musgrave was a woodworker and there was a shop he could use for bigger projects. He built bedroom furniture for his oldest daughter, and two more children who were born after he and his wife moved to Alaska.

Musgrave missed his family during his months at sea. On the ships, the ALPAT crew spent quite a few hours sitting around, waiting for something to happen. They watched a lot of movies. Most days, Musgrave spent an hour or two working out with a 200-pound sand bag in the hangar. He would sometimes go down and help wash dishes in the galley. You didn’t need a special qualification to scrub pots, and it helped to pass the time.

BACK IN COMBAT, SCHMITZ AND GEDEMER had been listening in on the radio communications between the 60 Jayhawk helicopter, already airborne from St. Paul Island, and the officers on board the Alaska Ranger. Captain Lloyd was listening in, too, along with Terrell, Cutburth, and Lopez. The captain towered over the rest of them. He was six foot six, thin and fit, with gray hair that made him look distinguished and slightly older than his forty-three years. Craig Lloyd was a lifetime Coastie. Both of his parents had served in the Coast Guard. His wife was in the service, and so was his brother. He’d seen a lot: He had played a key organizational role during Hurricane Katrina back in 2005, and had led his share of cold-water search and rescue cases. He could already tell that tonight would be one he—and his 160-person crew—wouldn’t soon forget.

Soon after 5:00 A.M., the Munro’s crew held a preflight brief. They reviewed the weather conditions, the information they had about the sinking ship, the geographic plan, and the objectives of the mission. Then, led by Erin Lopez, the crew drew up a GAR model. The acronym stood for both General Analysis of Risk and Green, Amber, Red, and it was an exercise the ship’s crew completed before beginning any operational mission. Common sense in a bucket, Captain Lloyd called it. There were six categories to evaluate: planning, supervision, equipment, mission complexity, crew fatigue, and crew selection. The staff would assign each a number between one and ten. The higher the total number, the higher the risk: twenty-three and lower is considered green, or low-risk; forty-four and higher is considered red, or high-risk, and requires approval from District Command to pursue.

Lopez asked Schmitz to assess event complexity. The pilot thought about the distances involved, the long night (sunrise wasn’t until 9:07 A.M.) and the sea state. They’d be dealing with high winds, snow, and—potentially, it sounded like—multiple victims in the water. Schmitz rated event complexity a ten. The GAR model revealed what was already obvious to Schmitz, Lopez, and just about everyone else in the room: They were about to take on a very high-risk, very high-reward mission.

The captain turned to Schmitz. Where did he feel comfortable launching?

“Eighty miles from the sinking site,” the pilot said. It was farther than anything they would ever do in training, even in perfect weather. But he felt it was reasonable. The ship would be closing the distance, which meant the return trip should be shorter.

THREE DECKS UP FROM COMBAT, Musgrave and the other flight mechs were busy preparing the helicopter. When not in use, the forty-five-foot Dolphin was stored inside the U-shaped hangar at the rear of the ship. To fit inside the garagelike structure, the helicopter’s rotor blades were folded in while the helo was still out on the flight deck, each along a hinge in the center of the blade. The bird was pulled back and forth from deck to hangar by a team of specially trained seamen known as the tie-down crew. Heavy canvas straps were secured to each corner of the aircraft and then cinched down inside the hangar or to holds on deck. No matter how rough the seas, the helicopter should be secure.

At the word from Combat, the tie-downs began to move the helo out onto the pitching deck. As the four-man team traversed the helo in the darkness, they could see the tips of the waves, whitecaps rushing by them at speeds they’d rarely—if ever—seen. Freezing spray pelted their backs and the backs of their heads, the cold water working its way toward any millimeter of exposed skin.

Slowly they tugged the 6,500-pound aircraft to the center of the platform, directly over a honeycombed metal platform known as the talon grid. A hydraulic arm, the talon, was lowered from the belly of the helo and latched on to the grid. The aircraft was safe.

The crew went back inside the hangar.

Now they’d wait.

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