Escape From Her GripWritten by Joshua Mitchell
Six days ago, the crew of the fishing vessel Equinox was happily and I might add, quite merrily, plying their way across the expanse of the Northern Pacific Ocean that separates the Aleutian Islands from the southeast section of Alaska. The long season had been a prosperous one and the tired crew was more than ready to make the final leg of the trip. Such a nautical sojourn entailed an 864-mile open water voyage to the green, tree laden fjords that surround Petersburg. I was taking my four-hour watch in the evening of the second day of the trip as beautiful setting sun and a calm oceanic swell came across the beam of the 58-foot vessel. The skipper, Derek, and my friend, Bo, were joining me for this special time of day to drink a celebratory beer. Derek being the omni aware skipper that he is, wanted to catch the weather forecast, realizing that it really did not matter what the meteorologist had to say because we were at the point of our journey of being completely committed.
To our dismay, the forecast had changed drastically. News of two different storm cells, one in front and the other behind us, quickly changed our good mood. Gale force winds accompanying 20 foot waves is what came over the side band radio. The wheelhouse quickly fell quiet as we wondered what lay in store for us over the next couple days. My comrades left shortly thereafter to lay in their respective bunks and think of our fate. I continued driving the boat and could not help but notice ominous clouds building around me as the evening turned to darkness. The hours slowly passed through the night while the seas began to build to an uncomfortable level. The boat being an incredibly sea worthy vessel charged through the waves as the gale strengthened. Consequently, sleep did not come easily due to nerves and the simple fact that being tossed around in a bunk is not the most conducive aspect of a restful night’s sleep.
The morning of the third day of our seven-day crossing, I found myself back on watch. I was admiring the way the boat handled some rather big seas. With a bulbous bow, she would literally plow through large walls of water and as the waves moved to our starboard side, I had no fear that she would roll over. Instead, my mind wandered to what I’d being doing in a week. Planning out the fun that was to be mine with my family and girlfriend. I felt so far away from the relatively close future that I might as well been dreaming of a different life. As the day passed, that dream began to feel uncomfortably farther and farther away. By the time night descended upon the crew of the Equinox, the waves had grown to a height of two stories and the wind was howling with ferocity that at the time I wish I could have only imagined. I was in the middle of the Gulf of Alaska and the shit started to hit the fan. Little things began to happen, such as the windows of the boat leaking salt water. Then the salt water found its way to the hot diesel stovetop and began to cook itself, emitting a sickeningly sweet odor. There was one moment that sticks out in my mind about that moment of impending doom. I was on the last hour of my wheel watch and decided that since I had yet to eat that day, I should grab a few crackers. I was in the galley, noticing the dripping salt water and the almost stalactite formations that were forming on the hot surface; when a wave larger than the rest slammed the boat from the starboard side and sent me falling through space. As I was falling, I was awaiting a sickening crack or thud, but thanks are to Poseidon, my falling body found its way into a corner of the galley that prevented any injury. The storm was building I thought.
My crewmate, Bo, finding it impossible to sleep in his bunk had cracked the back door and was having a smoke. A similar wave that I had experienced from the starboard side, slammed into the boat causing Bo to lose his balance. Unfortunately for him, his hand grazed the latch of a fire extinguisher sending it crashing to the floor. I was stationed above in the wheelhouse watching combing waves roll by when I heard a crash followed by a high-pressure spray. I quickly looked downstairs thinking the worst and found to my amusement that Bo was fighting an erupting extinguisher that had drenched the galley in a thick coat of white powder. As if that was not enough to deal with at the time, a drawer full of cooking utensils came unlatched and flew across the galley, sending the contents into the freshly powdered floor. Life was getting more uncomfortable and my prayers began to turn to God with a touch of wonder of how intense this night would prove to be.
My watch ended at midnight and after checking out the engine room to make sure all systems were working properly, and that no water was where it should not be, I wearily laid down in my bunk. No sooner had I lain down, alarms started going off. One of the automatic bilge pumps was having trouble keeping up with the amount of water we were taking on. With Derek’s help, we remedied the situation only to find that another alarm was soon to go off. Water had made its way into the fuel filters of one of the auxiliary engines and the incessant buzzing was our cue to drain the water from the filter. I began to feel my pulse quicken as my heart was pumping endorphins throughout my body. Our 58-foot vessel was able to take on the 40-knot winds and 20+ foot seas without concern. However, as the chief engineer, my worry was that if we had a system failure, we could potentially be in a life- endangering situation. I had done all that I could in the engine room and so I left the hot, loud, and noxious fumes for the relative peace of my bunk, again praying that no alarms would pull me from a fitful night’s rest. I did not bother undressing this time for I felt that I had yet to see the peace that my mind and body were craving. As I laid down in my bunk and was tossed from side to side in the most uncomfortable of ways, a tremendous thud smacked just right outside my bunk. It was if the 660 horsepower engine had driven the Equinox into the fist of Mother Nature Herself. And then the engine died.
Cussing, swearing, and praying all ensued at once as the skipper and myself ran down the ladder into the engine room to diagnose the problem. My little taste of hell was becoming more intense as we cracked fuel lines looking for water, changed filters, and replaced pumps. The smell of the diesel fuel on my skin and clothes combined forces with the heat of the engine room and the stress of the situation only to leave us both gagging and faint. Four hours of head scratching, sweating, and rolling around in diesel is the price I paid as engineer of a vessel adrift at sea 270 miles in the middle of the Gulf of Alaska. If a miracle took place and I actually found myself back at home in week as planned, I’d never do this again I promised God. Thankfully our auxiliary engine was running and we had power to run the radios, so Derek called the Kodiak based coastguard and told them our location, problem, and number of crew. It took 24 hours for the 47-person team on the 225-foot Cutter Spar to reach us. During that time, the seas had subsided and we occupied our time by reading and thinking. There is no place like the middle of the open ocean to do some serious soul searching and life evaluation. When the coastguard arrived, they tossed us a line and towed us for 36 hours back to the safety of Kodiak.
Upon our arrival in Kodiak, we received news that in a similar storm, the 93-foot fishing vessel, Katmai, sank in the icy waters off Alaska's Aleutian Islands with a crew of 11 aboard. Four men survived in a life raft, and the bodies of five had been recovered. These conditions we were told were the same and that they as well lost power miles away from port. In an industry where boats sink and lives are lost to her icy grip, the crew of the Equinox counted our blessings as we stepped foot on the snow laden dock of Kodiak to head up to the tavern for a much needed beer. The feeling of having escaped Mother Nature’s icy grip pervaded all three of us as we sat down to look each other in the eye to offer a celebratory toast of having made it back alive.
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