The Observers

Gwen Rains had been on board the Alaska Ranger for four days. For the past two years, she had worked on and off as a federal fisheries observer. In a given year, approximately 350 observers sail on fishing vessels in Alaskan waters, recording information about the catch. Their data are used to manage the fisheries in real time and to set annual quotas for different species.

Smaller vessels under 60 feet in length are exempt from the observer requirement. (Unsurprisingly, 59 feet has become a popular boat length and owners have been known to saw off a couple feet of bow to squeeze in under the limit.) Ships from 60 to 125 feet in length sail with an observer 30 percent of the time. Most large ships, including the Alaska Ranger and the rest of the FCA trawlers, sail with two observers every time they leave port.

The cost of running the Alaskan observer program is shouldered mostly by the fishing companies themselves. The price tag is more than $350 per day per observer, just less than half of which goes toward administrative costs. The federal government pays for the observers’ training and for data management through the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which is an agency within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The job isn’t glamorous. Gwen learned that pretty quickly. An observer’s main task at sea is to sample the ship’s catch. The data are used to assess the overall health of the fishery, and to determine if the ship is observing environmental laws—among them reporting its catch accurately. The end goal is to keep Alaska’s fisheries sustainable. Over a period of three months, an individual observer might spend time on one, two, three, or even four different boats.

Though the fisheries observer program exists across the United States and in many other countries, Alaska’s system is more complex than most. There are a huge number of fisheries, each with its own set of complex regulations. The types of boats vary widely as well. An observer has to learn how to work effectively on long-liners, pot boats, and trawlers, on small boats with just four or five crew, and on huge processors with more than a hundred workers on board. Each ship may present a new gear type, a new daily schedule, and a new method of catching and—often—processing fish.

On each boat, Gwen had to figure out the best method for taking a scientifically sound, random sample of the catch. How much fish was the ship hauling up? What was the distribution of species? What prohibited species were being caught, and in what quantities? If time permitted, she would sex her fish samples by examining the gonads and determine age by extracting the otoliths, tiny ear bones whose annual ridges can be counted like tree rings. The work was messy and smelly. It took place either on the cold, wet deck of a catcher boat bouncing in the Alaskan waves or, on the larger processing boats, belowdecks in a frigid, damp factory reeking of fish—and fishermen.

The hours were long. But on a large vessel with two observers on board, like the Ranger, the shifts were relatively stable. Each observer worked twelve hours on, twelve hours off while the boat was actively fishing. (When the ship was transiting to or from the fishing grounds, there’d often be paperwork to do, or sleep to catch up on.) Each time the catch was hauled aboard, an observer had to be there to take a sample. On most boats, Gwen sent daily forms via e-mail from the ship to the program administrators at NMFS. Observer data can shut down a fishery if, for instance, sampling reveals that a large amount of prohibited species are being pulled up in the haul. In addition to keeping track of what the boat wants to catch (the “targeted” species) observers are responsible for documenting “prohibs” like halibut, crab, and salmon, whose harvest is strictly allocated to specific types of boats. A factory trawler is never allowed to keep these species; rather, they have to be thrown back into the ocean, alive or dead. They’re usually dead.

Fisheries observers sometimes have to play the role of cops on ships, and that means they’re occasionally treated with contempt. It wasn’t an easy job, but Gwen loved it. Like most observers, she worked for a few months and then took a few months off. She noticed that during the time away, the drudgery of the job tended to fade from her memory, while the joys—the crisp summer days in Dutch Harbor, the late-night chats with captains in the rolling wheelhouse—stayed with her.

Gwen worked for Saltwater Inc., one of five private companies that contracted with NMFS to provide observers for the Alaskan fisheries. The starting pay was $130 a day. By 2008, Gwen had worked her way up to a $190 daily wage. Except for the odd meal out in Dutch Harbor, food and housing were paid for. She got an allowance for clothing, and the company paid her airfare to and from the fishing ports and back to Seattle, where she debriefed with a NMFS staff member before heading home. A lot of fishermen—and observers, too—blew a great deal of cash on alcohol when they were in Dutch, but Gwen wasn’t a big drinker. She saved pretty much all she earned, about $15,000 in a three-month stint.

At thirty-eight, Gwen was older than the average fisheries observer. The prerequisites for the job include a four-year science degree, preferably in biology or marine biology, and at least one class in both math and statistics. Of approximately two hundred new observers trained in a given year, only half will come back after their first three-month contract. Of those remaining hundred, perhaps fifty will still be in the job a year later. Like many fishermen, most new observers arrive in their first Alaskan port having never spent significant time on a boat. The majority are in their early twenties and looking to make some money and get some real-world experience before applying to grad school.

Gwen didn’t fit the obvious mold. She was from Marshall, Arkansas, a divorced mom with four kids at home—two boys and two girls, ranging in age from ten to seventeen. She’d dreamed of being a marine biologist since she was a child and had spent years working her way to a four-year biology degree from the University of Central Arkansas. In June 2006, she spotted the fisheries observer position on the job search Web site Monster. com. In July Gwen was on a plane to Anchorage. She’d struggled with the decision to leave her kids with their dad for the months she’d be in Alaska. But the job felt like the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. She decided to go.

In the two years since then, Gwen had worked on a variety of boats, including a couple owned by the Fishing Company of Alaska. She had probably spent half her total sea days on FCA boats. All of them had Japanese fish masters. Gwen had heard from other observers about Dutch Harbor boats with Norwegian fish masters. If a company hired a fish master, he was pretty much the number one person on the boat—the guy who’d be making the key calls. As Gwen saw it, the captain was essentially a taxicab driver.

Gwen was told to report to the Ranger in the third week of March 2008. She was waiting at the pier when the boat pulled up, at close to 2:00 in the morning. As Gwen boarded the ship for the first time, her friend Christina Craemer, a Saltwater observer who had been on the ship since A season began in mid-January, was getting off. Chris and Gwen had gone through the three-week observer training class together in Anchorage a year and half before, and they’d hit it off right away. They were both a bit older than the average student and were both from small farming communities. Gwen and Chris recognized an appealing, down-to-earth quality in each other. They were both runners, and enjoyed jogging together when they found themselves with the same off time in Dutch Harbor.

Chris told Gwen about the recent changes on the ship: how Captain Steve Slotvig had left the boat after a series of fights with the fish master and been replaced by Pete Jacobsen. Another FCA captain, David Silveira, had come on as first mate.

Gwen was happy with the news. Silveira normally sailed as the captain of the FCA long-liner Alaska Pioneer, and Gwen had been aboard that ship the previous two B seasons. She’d spent dozens of hours in the wheelhouse talking with the handsome former tuna fisherman and counted him among her favorite people in Dutch Harbor. Silveira was extremely charismatic. He could be stern when he needed to be, but it was obvious he had a big heart. He was the type who often went out of his way to assist crew members with their personal problems—and to be helpful to observers.

It was part of Gwen’s job to record any marine mammal sightings when at sea, but mostly she just loved to stare at the animals for as long as possible. Every time Silveira spotted a pod of whales from the Pioneer’s wheelhouse, he’d announce Gwen’s name over the ship’s loudspeaker. Silveira didn’t want to distract his crew—many of whom would be handling dangerous hooks and lines—by announcing a whale sighting. But Gwen knew that when she heard Silveira say her name there was something to see.

Both Chris and Gwen knew that often the best way to get to know men on the ships was to ask them questions about their families. A lot of fishermen put on a tough guy persona. And there was plenty of truth to it: Many of the men working on theRanger had criminal records. One quip around Dutch was that FCA was really an acronym for “Felons Cruising Alaska.” Many of the fishermen would talk openly about the time they’d served, or about their history with drug or alcohol abuse. But once the observers got to know the individual guys, they usually found that most of them were hardworking men doing their best to make a living at something respectable. There was no denying that it tended to be a rough crowd on the bigger factory boats. There was going to be a lot of attitude, a lot of foul language, maybe a few fights. As an observer, you had to expect that. You were entering their world, after all.

Captain Pete, though, was a different type. In his mid-sixties, he was older than the rest of the crew. He was small and thin, with a gray beard that he kept neatly trimmed. His manner was calm—soft-spoken, even. He rarely yelled, which was not something that could be said of many captains. Pete Jacobsen was a kind man, and generous with his time. Earlier that winter, he had personally gone out and bought new carpet for the observers’ room after noticing that it was particularly musty. The act was unprompted; no one had complained about it. The captain laid the new carpet down himself.

Pete was a neat freak and would personally sweep the wheelhouse every single day. Sometimes he would vacuum, too, even though he could have had someone else do it; it was someone else’s job. Even on the ship, he dressed well, often wearing a button-up shirt with a pointed collar and snap buttons that his third wife, Patty, had made for him. At home in Lynnwood, Washington, Pete was the kind of husband who would spend all day working on a clogged drain, or he would search the whole house to help Patty find a missing sock. After twenty years of marriage, Pete was still awed by the way his wife held their lives together while he was gone. It could be hard. He’d worked for the FCA since the start, and even though he told Patty it was the Japanese who really ran the company, he felt an intense loyalty to FCA owner Karena Adler. When the company called, Pete never said no. They might have plans for a trip the next day, but still he’d be headed back up to Dutch. Patty would be at home in Lynnwood, taking care of the kids and later the grandkids. Pete had two children with Patty, a stepson named Scott, and a daughter named Erica. And he had two children from his first marriage, Carl and Karen.

Pete hadn’t been in good touch with his older children for many years. But more recently, he and his daughter Karen had grown closer. Pete was proud of the things she’d accomplished—her master’s degree and her job as a nutritionist. Karen had become a devout Christian, and on the few occasions when she visited her father in Seattle, they went together to a Baptist church near his home. For her thirtieth birthday, Pete bought Karen a mariner’s cross, a necklace with a pendant of Jesus on a ship’s wheel and anchor. A few years later, Karen selected a leather-bound Bible for her father, and had “Captain Eric Peter Jacobsen” embossed on the soft cover.

Pete Jacobsen loved his family, that was clear. But for more than twenty years, he’d spent nine, ten—sometimes eleven—months out of the year in Alaska. Sometimes when Pete talked about his children, it seemed like he was talking about people he didn’t know all that well.

LED BY CAPTAIN PETE, GWEN WALKED through the Ranger looking at safety gear. Each time she got under way on a new boat, Gwen was required to check that the ship had a current Coast Guard safety decal—a sticker issued to a vessel after a successful dockside exam—and to fill out a standardized safety checklist in her logbook. The efforts were for her own benefit: to determine that the ship was safe enough for her to board.

She checked out the ship’s survival suits and the EPIRB. She noted that a number of the Ranger’s fire extinguishers did not appear to be in “good and serviceable condition” as her list stated they should be. Gwen’s form was divided between “go” and “no-go” items. The Coast Guard decal was a no-go: If the boat didn’t have one, or if it wasn’t up-to-date, she couldn’t sail on the ship.

That observer program rule had turned the Coast Guard’s so-called voluntary dockside exam into a mandatory one, at least for ships over sixty feet. It made sense that NMFS wanted to protect its own people by ensuring that the boats they’d be working on had the proper safety equipment. But the decal rule begged the question: If a boat isn’t safe enough for a government observer, why is it safe enough for a few dozen fisheries workers who are likely to have even less safety training? It was a double standard, one that seemed to say that the life of an observer was more worth protecting than the life of a fisherman.

The rule was a sore spot among those in the Coast Guard who had been arguing for mandatory inspections for years. It was embarrassing that the Coast Guard couldn’t enforce inspections but that the fishery management body could—and in a very short amount of time, without public comment.

Gwen examined the decal and then the life rafts: They had to hold everyone on board and have up-to-date inspection stickers. Many of the other items on her list were discretionary. Technically, an observer has a right to refuse to get on any boat, though it rarely happens. If an observer rejects a boat for anything other than no-go reasons, the company has to scramble to find a replacement. Meanwhile, the ship can’t leave port, which is a situation that’s bound to make many people extremely unhappy.

As she walked the ship with Captain Pete, Gwen noticed that some of the seals on the Ranger’s watertight doors looked like they were in poor repair. A couple were frayed, and it was a struggle to get the doors closed correctly. The ship was dirtier than any other boat she’d been on. Still, the Ranger passed her checklist. As the ship got under way, she unpacked her bag in the cabin she’d share with her co-observer, Jayson Vallee.

JAY WAS TWENTY-FIVE YEARS OLD and newer to the job. He wore round, wire-rimmed glasses and had a full beard and coarse red hair he tamped down with a Red Sox baseball cap. Three months earlier a friend had dropped Jay off at the Manchester, New Hampshire, airport for the flight to Anchorage. It was Christmas Eve, and Jay had managed to get a one-way ticket from New Hampshire to Alaska for just $400. He’d have multiple stopovers, but the price was worth it. Saltwater would reimburse him $350, their estimate for the trip from Seattle to Alaska.

Jay had held a series of odd jobs since graduating with a four-year biology degree from the University of New Hampshire in 2005. He drove a bus and worked processing insurance claims. He saw Saltwater’s ad on Craigslist, interviewed over the phone, and was offered the position. It wasn’t a hard decision. He’d been out of college for almost two years and this was the first job offer he’d had that had anything to do with his major. He was on the flight a couple weeks later.

It was after 1:00 A.M. when Jay stepped off the plane into Anchorage’s newly renamed Ted Stevens International Airport. He was expecting deep snow, but there’d been more accumulation in New Hampshire. He got in a cab. The driver already knew the way to the Saltwater bunkhouse.

In the early 1990s, when the federal observer program was just getting off the ground, Saltwater was among ten companies that formed to screen, hire, and manage new Alaskan observers. Since then, the number of contracting companies has been whittled down to five. Two of them, including Saltwater, have their headquarters in Anchorage. The other three are in Seattle. New observers can get their three-week orientation training in either city.

There were nineteen in Jay’s class, eight men and eleven women. Every weekday for three weeks, they reported to the second floor of an unadorned office building in downtown Anchorage. The classroom where the students met had windows facing south. They got there by 8:00 A.M. It was after 10:00 by the time the sun rose behind the Chugach Range to the east of town, and long before they left the building at 5:00 P.M. each day, all traces of light had already disappeared below the horizon. It was depressing, Jay thought. It felt like the whole city was draped in a permanent gloom.

The space wasn’t unlike the college science classrooms where most of the students had spent untold hours as undergraduates. Stuffed fish were hung on the wall. Crowded bookshelves held stained manuals and species-identification books. At the back of the room, the contents of a life raft’s survival kit had been broken open and arranged on a corkboard wall. There were flashlights, flares, and first-aid supplies. Water and food rations were displayed, along with a paddle, a rigid bag used for bailing out a raft in rough seas, a large rewarming sack, and a horseshoe-size plastic ring known as a quoit, which is attached to a rescue line and intended to be thrown to people outside the raft who need to be pulled in. Next to the survival display were tacked up dozens of press clippings about boats fined for various environmental infractions—and about sunken fishing vessels and their survivors and victims.

The primary focus of the course was to teach the students the types of fish they would be working with in Alaska and how to sample the catch. Many hours were also spent reviewing the different types of boats and fishing gear they might encounter, which would influence how often they would sample and in what manner. The students were exposed to an overview of the complex laws that govern the fisheries, and were spoken to by a NOAA enforcement officer who explained how to report environmental violations.

Jay had hours of homework most nights. There was a mid-term and a final and the students had to score at least 80 percent on each to pass the class, and get eight out of ten species on a fish identification test as well. In a separate classroom a floor below, the instructors pulled a few dozen frostbitten specimens from the freezer and laid them out on stainless steel tables. The samples were old and had scars from years of poking and prodding by nervous students. To Jay, the fish test was the hardest part of the class. Each student had to use an identification key to pinpoint the exact species. It was harder than it sounded. Most of the samples looked very different from the pictures in Jay’s book, and even once you narrowed it down, there were so many varieties of each fish: five types of salmon, fifteen skates, sixteen sculpins, more than thirty kinds of rockfish.

In the last week of class, the students were split into two groups: men and women. The women gathered around a veteran female observer and were given a chance to ask questions about how to handle potential sexual harassment on a boat. They were drilled with some time-earned wisdom: You’ll be in rubber boots and a slimy sweatshirt, your hair pulled back in a ponytail, and smelling like fish guts. You won’t have looked in a mirror in weeks, but you’ll still be the most beautiful woman the fishermen have seen in months. They’ll probably let you know it. The women were advised to maintain professional boundaries and—above all—not to get sexually involved with a fisherman on a boat. It would damage their reputation and make it harder to do their jobs. Don’t kid yourself into thinking you’ll just keep it secret, the new observers were told. Gossip spreads fast on a fishing boat.

Meanwhile, the men got a lecture in how to avoid coming off as smart-ass college boys.

The last week of class, the entire group loaded into a bus for the ride to a local university’s indoor pool, where Jay and his classmates practiced getting into their survival suits. They were timed to do it in under a minute—considered the industry standard. They were taught a very specific method: Lay the suit out on the floor, unzip it, and sit down on top of the open torso to wiggle your feet into the neoprene legs. Once their legs were in, they were to kneel forward and pull on the upper half of the suit. The weak arm went in first; then they should use their strong arm (the right for right-handed people) to secure the suit’s hood over their head before sliding in the second arm and zipping the suit up over their chins with the long string attached to the plastic zipper.

Back in the classroom, the instructors provided a few tips for getting on suits quickly and effectively. Plastic bags can be stored in the legs of the suit and slipped over the shoes to help the feet slide in more easily. Hats should be removed and long hair pulled back to be sure the seal between hood and face is watertight. If it’s time to put on the suit, it’s time to zip it up all the way. There were plenty of instances of bodies being pulled out of the water with a suit on and the zipper opened up to the sea.

The observers-in-training each shuffled up to the pool’s diving board, crossed one leg over the other, held one hand over their face to prevent their mouth flap from being forced open, placed the other on their head to hold the hood in place, and jumped into the water. They swam laps in the suits—always on their backs, to prevent water from leaking into the neck. And they practiced climbing into a life raft deployed in the pool. They were taught how to pull their upper body onto the edge of the raft, and then kick their feet hard to help lift their lower body up in the water. From that position, it was easier to be pulled into the protective structure. Each trainee took a turn at pulling and being pulled.

The observers practiced linking up in the water in small groups, rafting together head to feet, or in a chain, with each person’s legs wrapped around the torso of the person in front of them. Finally, the whole group linked arms to create a large, pinwheel-like circle. With their heads toward the center and their feet facing out, all the students could kick at once, a maneuver that would theoretically allow a group of people to be more easily spotted in the water from an aircraft flying far overhead. There was some additional warmth to be gained from staying together; there was a definite benefit regarding visibility. Perhaps the greatest advantage, though, was to morale. Feeling like you’re helping someone else to survive can sometimes be the key to your own survival. The instructors repeated the same points again and again. Most of them had experienced a few close calls out there themselves. They tried their best to drive the safety lessons home.

After the pool day, back at the training center, the students picked out their own personal Gumby suits from several sizes and brands—eight different fits in all. Jay found a good match, then rolled the suit back up and stuffed it into its storage bag along with a couple pieces of hard wax he’d been given to keep his zipper working smoothly.

He completed the program on January 15. The next day he was on a plane. His first vessel was a small catcher boat out of Akutan, a village of eight hundred people thirty-five miles east of Dutch Harbor. The Ranger was his second ship. He’d been aboard for about three weeks now.

WHEN GWEN ARRIVED ON MARCH 19, she and Jay decided she’d take over Chris’s noon-to-midnight shift. As the junior observer, Jay would stay on the midnight-to-noon. So far there hadn’t been much work. The day Gwen got on the Ranger for the first time, the ship left Dutch Harbor to fish for yellowfin sole. They’d barely done any fishing at all—just four hauls—before the fish master ordered the boat back to Dutch. Word was that the other FCA boats were doing the same. They’d given up on yellowfin fishing for now; instead they’d be steaming several hundred miles west to fish for Atka mackerel.

They set out at noon on Saturday, March 22. As always, Gwen recorded the time in her logbook. She spent much of the afternoon in the wheelhouse. She watched a movie in her cabin and was asleep by 10:00 P.M. She woke up to the A-phone ringing.

Jay picked up.

“Hello? Hello?”

No answer.

As soon as he put the receiver down, the phone was ringing again.

Gwen worried that Silveira might be trying to reach them from the wheelhouse. Maybe he had a question about paperwork. Gwen knew both Silveira and Captain Pete were new to trawling. They’d been having trouble with some of the record-keeping required by recent changes in fishing laws. She got up.

The ship’s alarm went off just as Gwen climbed the last stairs to the wheelhouse. Silveira was inside.

“This is bad. It’s really, really bad,” he said.

“What’s going on?” Gwen asked.

“We’re flooding.”

Silveira was in the middle of a conversation with the ship’s assistant engineer, Rodney Lundy. Moments later, Rodney’s boss, Dan Cook, came through the door.

Gwen sat down and listened.

It was the rudder room, Rodney reported. The water was already thigh-high.

The engineer thought it was already too late to stop the flooding. They had to focus on blocking it, partitioning off the water and, above all, preventing it from spreading to the engine room.

GWEN HAD A PERSONAL LOCATOR BEACON, or PLB, essentially a hand-held EPIRB. Every Alaskan fisheries observer is issued their own beacon. The several-hundred-dollar gadget is registered to a particular user. Once a beacon is transmitting, a NOAA station in Maryland picks up the signal instantly. They get a GPS hit that’s accurate within a few dozen yards and should immediately contact the observer’s employer and local rescue authorities.

Each time she got on a new boat, Gwen looked for the best place to store her survival suit and sandwich-size PLB. On the Ranger, she had her beacon on a hook in her cabin; her suit was stored in the wheelhouse, separate from the suits for the crew. Jay showed up in the wheelhouse soon after the general alarm started going off. When he realized it was a real emergency, he ran back down to the observer cabin to get his PLB and Gwen’s. Meanwhile, Gwen grabbed her survival suit and started pulling it on. She set off the beacon as soon as she was suited up. Jay set his off at about the same time.

Gwen was still in the wheelhouse when the satellite phone call came in. Silveira picked up. It was the representative at Saltwater, calling for Jay. Was there a real emergency?

“Yes, Jay did activate his PLB,” Silveira reported. “We’re flooding.”

Silveira was looking right at Gwen as he hung up. “Do you have yours activated?” he asked her.

“Yes, I turned it on!” Gwen replied. “They didn’t ask anything about me?”

“No,” Silveira said. “They didn’t.”

FOR MORE THAN AN HOUR, GWEN LISTENED as Silveira and Captain Pete consulted with the engineers, sent men down to try to control the flooding, and made calls to the other FCA trawlers and the Coast Guard. Everyone else had gotten into their suits and had been ordered back out onto the deck. Gwen figured she could stay inside if she just stayed quiet and out of the way.

From the moment she walked into the wheelhouse, Gwen had known the situation was dire from the look on Silveira’s face and by his tone of voice. Based on what she overheard, she didn’t think the Ranger could be saved, but she did think it was possible to contain the flooding until another ship arrived. She imagined abandoning ship onto the Warrior or, better, onto a Coast Guard vessel.

Then she overheard Silveira and the engineers discussing the possibility of the Warrior towing the Ranger back to Dutch Harbor.

“We’re not going to get towed in,” the assistant engineer, Rodney Lundy, said. “There’s already water spraying in around the doors.”

I’m getting into a life raft, Gwen thought. I’m going to have to get into a tiny life raft in the middle of the Bering Sea.

Gwen thought about her kids. She always called home when she was in port between trips. But this time, she’d only talked to them for a couple minutes. She hadn’t seen them in two months.

What am I doing here? she thought.

About twenty minutes after Gwen overheard the engineers talking about the spraying water, the ship’s lights began flickering.

“The water’s made it to the engine room,” Gwen heard Cook say. The engines were sputtering, gurgling.

The lights went out.

Silveira was at the helm. “I’ve lost steering,” he said. He repeated the words several times.

“The engines are backing up,” Silveira said. “They’re backing up!”

Moments later, Silveira gave the order to abandon ship.

Gwen was assigned to the number two life raft, stored on the Ranger’s port side. When she got out on deck, the emergency squad member who was supposed to launch that raft didn’t know how. The Jacob’s Ladder wasn’t tied off. Gwen felt panicked. She knew how to launch the raft. At her last briefing in Seattle, there had been a refresher class on safety training; a Coast Guard officer had come to talk to the group and each student had simulated launching a life raft. She had no idea, though, how to tie off the Jacob’s Ladder.

Gwen was relieved when Evan Holmes ran over from his post on the starboard side of the ship and tied the raft’s port ladder to the boat. He saw Gwen standing by the rail.

“Don’t you worry. We’re going to get you off this boat,” Evan yelled to the fisheries observer.

The words of reassurance made Gwen feel calmer. She looked at the raft.

“I just pull the pelican hook, right?” she yelled back to Silveira over the growling engine noise.

What if I do it wrong? Gwen thought. She was seized with fear. This isn’t just my raft, it’s everybody else’s raft, too. She knew that was the correct way to launch the raft, but she wanted the confirmation of the mate.

“Yes, pull the pelican hook!” Silveira yelled from the wheelhouse.

Gwen and another crewman pulled the hook and pushed the raft over the port rail. The bulk hit the water, then nothing. Gwen couldn’t see it. She had no idea if it hadn’t inflated at all, or if it had just somehow swung out of sight. The ship was listed far to starboard and Gwen’s side of the boat was raised high above the water.

Maybe the raft is stuck down against the hull, where we can’t see it, Gwen thought.

She could see the painter line. It was right there in front of her, pulled taut. The raft had to be somewhere. Then, not much more than a minute after they’d launched the raft, she saw the line snap.

Gwen strained her eyes into the blackness. Still, she couldn’t see the raft.

Gwen could hear people yelling “Abandon ship!” but jumping blindly seemed like a bad idea. Her training had taught her to get directly from the vessel into a raft if humanly possible. The instructions had been repeated again and again: Get into the raft. Youmust get into the raft in the Bering Sea. The words came into her mind now.

Gwen went back into the wheelhouse to talk to Silveira. Pete was inside too, along with the fish master and the engineers. The two head officers were taking turns working the radios.

It was 4:15 A.M. when the officers on the Alaska Ranger radioed the Coast Guard that they had lost life rafts.

“COMMSTA Kodiak, COMMSTA Kodiak, this is the Alaska Ranger.”

Alaska Ranger, this is COMMSTA Kodiak, over,” watchstander David Seidl answered.

The ship’s transmission was completely muddled by static.

Alaska Ranger, this is COMMSTA Kodiak,” Seidl said once more. “Request you say your last again, over.”

“Yeah, the boat took a big-ass list to starboard,” the ship’s officer answered. “We launched the port raft. The painter broke.” There was more, but again, static drowned out the transmission. After a few minutes, another few words were audible: “We’re getting into the rafts right now.”

Alaska Ranger, COMMSTA Kodiak, roger,” the reply came back. “Have you weak or readable. I think I got a good copy. Understand your vessel listed to starboard, and you lost a couple rafts into the water. Is this correct, Captain?”

“Yes, we did, we lost one of them. On the port side. The, uh, the painter broke.”

“Roger, Captain. Good copy. Be advised we have an ETA for Coast Guard rescue 60, should be there in approximately five, zero minutes. How copy on that, sir?”

“I copy.”

“Roger, Captain. We appreciate the information. Please keep us informed. We’ll be standing by for you, sir.”

BETWEEN CALLS, PETE TURNED TO GWEN. “This vessel is going to capsize any minute,” the captain told her. “You have to get off. Now.”

Gwen couldn’t mistake the urgency in Captain Pete’s voice.

She went back outside, to the stern deck on the starboard side. One of the other rafts was floating not too far from the ship. It looked pretty stable in the water. A group of fishermen were standing around an empty life raft cradle.

“Go, go, go, go!” Gwen yelled. “We have to get off this boat now!”

Gwen watched as one guy grabbed hold of the painter line and shimmied down into the water. Gwen followed, but almost immediately lost her grip on the rope.

She bobbed up, spitting out a mouthful of salt water. She could see the raft. She started swimming: two breaststrokes. Then she stopped. She thought back to her training. Stop and think, she’d been instructed back in Anchorage. Try to relax. Get your breathing under control. If you have to swim, swim on your back, or you’ll end up with water inside your suit.

All I have to do is get hold of the painter line, Gwen thought. Then she could exert less energy by pulling herself into the raft. She was lying on her back in the water with her legs and arms crossed, the best way to conserve heat, she remembered, when she saw the line. She reached out and grabbed it through the neoprene mitts of her survival suit. Hand over hand, she walked her way up the rope to the edge of the bobbing life raft.

Through the open door of the tented shelter, she could see that a couple of the Japanese technicians were already inside. As she reached the shelter, one of the men leaned out, and grabbed on to her. With one strong yank, he hauled her up into the safety of the tented compartment.

THE CREW OF THE COAST GUARD’S Hercules C-130, rescue plane 1705, launched in textbook time, half an hour after pilot Tommy Wallin got the call. From Anchorage, it was about nine hundred miles to the sinking ship. They should be on scene within three hours.

The Herc had been airborne for less than an hour when a communication came over the radio. The boat was sinking. People were abandoning ship, straight into the water.

The mood in the aircraft grew tense. Pilots Wallin and Matt Duben had already calculated their route to the Ranger, but now they decided to ascend another few thousand feet. The airframe can get more speed at higher altitude—and flying higher also helps preserve fuel. The 60 Jayhawk helicopter from St. Paul Island would almost certainly reach the spot before they did, but once they got to the emergency site, the C-130 crew would take over on-scene communications. At their altitude, the plane would have the ability to communicate directly with the 60 Jayhawk, the Coast Guard cutter Munro, the base in Kodiak, and District Command in Juneau. Until they were on scene, the Coast Guard assets would be communicating as best they could through VHF and UHF transmissions. Until they got there, the crew of the C-130 wouldn’t be doing anybody any good at all.

BACK AT THE COMMUNICATIONS STATION in Kodiak, the transmissions from the Ranger’s officers were growing more and more muddled.

Alaska Ranger, Alaska Ranger, this is COMMSTA. Be advised I have you weak and barely readable,” watchstander David Seidl radioed to the ship at 4:22 A.M. “Understand you have lost all your power, over?”

“That is correct. I also have a twenty-five-to-thirty-degree starboard list. I got two people, two people, in the water.”

Alaska Ranger, this is COMMSTA. Confirm, two people have gone in the water at this time, over.”

“Roger, I’ve got two people in the water,” the response came back from the ship. “I have no power, all right?”

Alaska Ranger, this is COMMSTA. Do you have a visual on the two people, over.”

“No, I do not at this time.”

Alaska Ranger, this is COMMSTA. Roger, understand. Stand by one, over.”


Several minutes later, Seidl attempted to make contact with the Ranger again: “Alaska Ranger, this is COMMSTA Kodiak, over.” He waited.


Alaska Ranger, this is COMMSTA Kodiak.” Still, silence.

At 4:36 A.M., almost two hours after David Seidl heard the first “Mayday” broadcast into his Kodiak cubicle, the watchstander scrawled the words “No Joy” in his notebook.

He had lost all communications with the sinking ship.

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