- STAFF PICKS
- GIFTS + GIFT CARDS
- SELL BOOKS
- FIND A STORE
Nights of Ice: True Stories of Disaster and Survival on Alaska's High Seasby Spike Walker
NIGHTS OF ICE
NIGHTS OF ICE
For Joe Harlan, captain of the fifty-three-foot crab boat Tidings, and his crew, the 1989 Kodiak Island tanner crab season had been an exceptionally tough one.
From the opening gun, they'd ignored the weather, fishing hard through the merciless cold of an arctic storm. They were working the waters down in the Sitkalidak Island area on the southeast side of Kodiak Island, some eighty nautical miles from the fishing port of Kodiak. But Harlan and his men had been pleased at their luck.
They'd been pulling gear in the biting cold of the short winter hours of light, grinding through a total of some one hundred crab pots. Harlan had agreed to pay his men a 10 percent per-man crew share that season. In just two weeks they'd boated more than forty thousand pounds of tanner crab. Crew shares had already topped ten thousand dollars — per man.
But they had been pounded night and day by wild north-west winds packing chill-factor temperatures of minus fifty degrees and williwaw gusts that made fishing that 1989 season one of the most perilous ever. One crab boat had gone down not far from Harlan and his men, near Chirikof Island. All four of the crewmen had died. So far, only one body had been recovered.
On another crab boat, one deckhand had lost three toes to frostbite when he ignored the water sloshing about in his boots while working on deck. As a fellow crewmate recalls it, "Before he knew it was happening, it had already happened."
On the very first day of the season, Joe Harlan had lost one of his own men to frostbite. He had rushed the man into the ancient Aleut village of Old Harbor on the south end of Kodiak Island and hired a bush plane to fly the man to the hospital in Kodiak for treatment. The man had broken no hard-and-fast rules of the sea; he had merely tried to sort crab wearing only cotton glove liners. And he had developed large blisters on the fingertips of both hands, which would keep him out of commission for the rest of the month-long season.
Less than two weeks of fishing later, the tanner crab catch fell off dramatically. And skipper Joe Harlan turned to his crew, hoping to cut his losses and call it a season. "Well, you know what you've made so far," he began. "And the way the crabbing has been going these last few days, you know what you can expect to make. The way I see it, we have two choices. We can stay out here and scratch away on a five-or-ten-crab-per-pot average until the Alaska Fish and Wildlife Department tells us to quit. Or we can quit burning up our fuel, store our gear away back in Kodiak, and get out of this cold son-of-a-bitchin' weather."
After weeks spent working in the single-worst extendedcold spell ever recorded in the Kodiak weather books, the crew of the Tidings did not hesitate. They'd been "successful enough" for one season.
Built in 1964 in the shipyards of Seattle, the fishing vessel Tidings had a wheelhouse that was mounted forward on the bow. She was considered one of the nicest boats around at the time because she had a toilet, something that was considered rather extravagant in those earlier, "hang it over the side" days.
Packing the recommended load of some thirteen crab pots on her back deck, the Tidings was closing fast on Chiniak Bay of the port of Kodiak, cruising through moderate seas, paralleling the coast of Kodiak Island about one and a half miles offshore, when, late on that frigid night, "all hell broke loose." Joe Harlan had been looking forward to slipping into the close and comfortable shelter of the Kodiak port, and with the exception of ice forming on the wheelhouse and railings of the Tidings, their journey north along the full length of the island had gone as planned.
But at Narrow Cape, they ran into some bad tide rips. Spray began exploding over the length of the ship, and they began making ice heavily.
Joe Harlan soon rousted his crew from their bunks.
"Guys, we've got to get this ice off of us," he said as he woke the men. With his crew gathered in the wheelhouse, Harlan pointed at the windows surrounding them. They were encased in ice. Only a clear space the size of a quarter in one window remained.
"Knock the windows clear, and then be sure and get the ice that's stuck to our railings," directed the skipper. "But don't let yourself get frostbitten. As soon as you get cold, come on in!" he insisted.
In an amazingly short time, a thick layer of ice had formed on the Tidings. Ice covered the boat — except, that is, for the crab pots themselves. Harlan and his crew had wrapped the commonly ice-drawing forms of steel and webbing in a layer of slick plastic, one that drained quickly before the spray from the ocean had time to harden.
The crew of the Tidings made good work of the ice-breaking task. But they longed to get back inside, out of the murderous cold. There they would flop down on the floor and warm themselves in front of the heater in the galley.
Back inside, skipper Joe Harlan was making a routine check of his engine room when he spotted seawater rising fast in the ship's bilge. Seconds later, the Tidings began to list to the port side.
Either the crab tank's circulation-pump pipe had ruptured inside the engine room or the steel bulkhead separating the engine room from the crab tank had split a seam. Nobody would ever know for sure. But it "put a lot of water in that engine room right now!" The moment Harlan spotted the water, he rushed to the back door and yelled to deck boss Bruce Hinman, "Grab your survival suits! And then start kicking the pots over the side!"
Joe Harlan was standing in the wheelhouse when he felt the Tidings roll. Instinctively, he was certain the ship would not be able to right herself. Yet he "couldn't believe it." He found he was unable to accept what was happening to the Tidings, a vessel he had come to trust and even admire. Then a ridiculous thought shot momentarily through his mind: He had an unspoken impulse to order his crew to "run back there, hop overboard, and push the thirty-ton vessel back upright."
With the Tidings sinking fast, Joe Harlan knew she would finish her roll and sink completely in about the time it wouldtake him to utter a single sentence. Turning to his VHF and CB radios, he made a snap decision.
In the past, he'd listened to many Mayday calls to the U.S. Coast Guard in Kodiak. As glad as he was to have them standing by for his fellow fishermen, Harlan also knew that the Coast Guard usually wanted to know "who your mother's sister was, the color of your boat," your date of birth, your last checkup, proper spelling, and the like. So rather than shoot off a Mayday to the Coast Guard, Harlan decided to take a gamble.
For much of the night, he'd been listening on VHF channel 6 to the friendly chatter of the boats traveling ahead of him up the line. He grabbed the CB mike then and yelled, "Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! This is the Tidings! We're off Cape Chiniak and we're going down!"
As he spoke, the Tidings fell completely over on her starboard side. Below him, Harlan could see batteries breaking loose and flying across the engine room. He felt his heart free-fall into his belly. Before he could unkey his mike, he "lost all power. Everything went dead."
Harlan heard a tremendous crash, and it seemed that all at once everything inside the boat--pots, pans, toasters, even rifles — came flying loose. Then the large hulk of the refrigerator came tumbling from its mounts. Harlan was thrown across the width of the wheelhouse. He struggled to regain his footing, but instead he tumbled backward down into the fo'c'sle.
Then, like a whale sounding, in one continuous motion the stern kicked high, and the Tidings sank bow-first, straight for the bottom. She slid toward the ocean floor in one steady motion, burying herself full length in the night sea. And there she paused, floating with only a few feet of her stern showing above the surface, with Joe Harlan still trapped inside.
As Bruce Hinman recalls it, shortly before the Tidings founderedand rolled over, his skipper had slowed the vessel to allow all six-foot-three and 290 pounds of Hinman's huge frame, as well as his fellow crewmates Chris Rosenthal and George Timpke, time to get dressed and make their way outside. A ten-inch-thick layer of sea ice had already formed on the Tidings' superstructure, and was growing fast. Clad only in their work clothes, they hurried outside to do battle.
Hinman, Rosenthal, and Timpke attacked the ice with baseball bats. They broke ice and tossed the chunks overboard as fast as they could move. And as they did, they squinted against the sharp, eye-watering gusts of arctic wind, and winced at the biting cold. They worked in drenching conditions in a chill-factor reading of some -55°F., the coldest ever recorded in the area. And they swung at the growing layers of ice now encasing the bow railings and bulwarks surrounding the wheelhouse, certain in the knowledge that their very lives hung in the balance.
Suddenly, the crab boat began to list sharply. The growing list soon tilted past forty-five degrees. Seawater rose over the port-side railing. Hinman was removing his survival suit from its bag when a tall wave broke over the twisting slope of the deck. And just as suddenly, he and the others found themselves dodging a deadly shuffle of 15,000 pounds of crab pots sliding forward toward them down the steep slope of the deck. As the bow of the Tidings nosed farther forward into the icy sea, the seven-ton stack of crab pots accelerated its slide, further distorting the already-untenable balance of the sinking ship.
Accelerating as it came, the tall and deadly stack of sliding crab pots closed on the terrified crewmen like a moving mountain. The square-fronted stack of steel and webbing plowed into the back door of the ship's wheelhouse like a runaway freight car. It slammed against the rear of the wheelhousewith the effect of a door closing on a bank vault, leaving their skipper trapped inside.
With the shifting weight accelerating the angle of the plunging bow, the Tidings rolled with an astonishing velocity, pitching the four crewmen scrambling across her back deck bodily through the air and overboard.
The suddeness of the port-side motion caught everyone off guard. It was as if an all-powerful force had suddenly gripped the Tidings and flipped her--as if her fifty-three feet and forty tons were no more substantial than a bathtub toy in a child's hands.
Bruce Hinman felt the sudden shift, and he found himself hurtling through space; several of the crab pots followed. His right arm became entangled in the webbing of one of the pots — and just as suddenly, the six-hundred-pound crab pot began to "sink like a rock" toward the bottom, dragging Hinman, kicking and struggling, along with it.
It all happened so quickly. Hinman had been knocked senseless by the sudden shock of the Kodiak waters, ensnared by one of his own crab pots, and was now being dragged along on an unforseen journey into deepest darkness toward an ocean floor more than a thousand feet below.
He knew instinctively that if he allowed panic to rule him, he would be lost. And he fought to choke back the rising tide of unreasoning fear within himself.
As he descended through the darkness, Hinman gained a measure of composure. He would fight against the building fear by taking action. He was perhaps seventy feet beneath the ocean surface when he managed to jerk his ensnared right arm free. Then he placed both of his stocking feet against the webbing of the crab pot and pushed away violently. The fast-sinkingcrab pot disappeared quickly, tumbling off into the black body of sea below him.
When Hinman looked up, he was awestruck by what he saw. For a blinding orb of radiant light hovered above him. There was something beautiful, even angelic about the vision before him. Brilliant in splendor, it bathed him in spirit-lifting columns of golden light that seemed to beckon him home.
He ascended feverishly then, stroking overhead toward the comforting swath of inexplicable light like a man with a building hope, a hope tempered by the fear that at any moment another toppling crab pot might very well descend upon him and carry him back down again.
And at that moment, Bruce Hinman's past life flashed before his very eyes. Launched instantaneously through time, he watched the events of his life play out before him with "the speed of thought." The prevailing feeling was of being cast adrift on a wondrous journey, unhindered by earthly impediments of time, matter, or communication.
Hinman felt "lost in time without an anchor." And the look and feel of special moments long past came back to him now with complete clarity. They flashed and froze there in his consciousness, in a kind of nostalgic collage of all that had once mattered in his life.
He saw his two little boys; his former wife, Carol; his two adopted foster daughters; and both of his parents, as well. Then Hinman was back under fire in Vietnam, just as it had all happened with soldier buddies dropping all around him. A millisecond later, he was a boy again, scrambling along the banks of Lake Shasta in northern California. And he was swept back into the very moment when he had come so close, as a child, to drowning. It all scrolled past him now, and eachmemory carried with it the exact same heart-tugging emotion he had felt at that time.
Bruce Hinman exploded through the surface, leaving the visions behind. He rose bodily into the bitter night, then wrenched hard and began inhaling deep lungfuls of the precious air.
When he regained himself, he spotted the stern of the Tidings drifting nearby. She was hanging straight down in the water.
Adrift now, without a survival suit, lost in a whiteout of silvery gray ice fog, Hinman knew the odds of outliving his predicament were slim. He dog-paddled and fought to catch his breath.
When he could, he yelled for his crewmates. "Hey, Chris! Where is everybody?"
A voice sounded out of the darkness perhaps fifty feet away. "Hinman!" He recognized the voice of his good friend and crewmate Chris Rosenthal.
"Harlan's in the boat! He's down inside the boat!" Chris shouted.
George Timpke, their third crewmate, soon acknowledged him, as well. He was clinging to a piece of flotsam off in the darkness approximately one hundred feet away.
Short of diving equipment, Hinman knew he had no way of reaching his trapped skipper. Swearing aloud, he soberly acknowledged to himself that his good friend Joe Harlan was a goner. And a single thought shot across his mind. What am I going to say to his wife, Mary Ellen?
Now Hinman felt the almost caustic effects of the bitter wind and numbing ocean against the flesh of his face. He also knew there would be no way to climb back aboard the sinking vessel, no way for him or his other shipmates to climb clearof the life-sucking cold of the Gulf of Alaska water, and he felt at once helpless and angry.
"Now what?" he shouted into the arctic night.
Harlan had been roughed up considerably when the Tidings had rolled over. In fact, he had come close to breaking his right arm. He scrambled to gather himself and climb out. Ordinarily, the ladder leading from the engine room to the sleeping quarters stood upright and led down into the engine room. But now the vertical leg of the ladder posed a serious obstacle. With the Tidings tilted straight down as she was, the ladder now lay unevenly across the inverted space before him, sloping as it stretched between cabins. Scaling it would be a little like trying to climb the underside of a stairway. With his battered right arm, it would be a difficult gymnastic feat.
Now the startled skipper found himself "all the way forward" in the darkest inner reaches of the ship's bow, some fifty feet below the surface of the sea. As the boat continued to leap and roll, he could hear the ongoing crash and clutter of stored parts falling and scattering overhead.
Suddenly, in the gray-black light, a roaring blast of seawater broke through the door to the engine room. The tumultuous white water broke heavily over Harlan, lifting him bodily and washing him out of the fo'c'sle. He gasped for air as the icy flood cascaded over him. As he was carried along through the inverted space of the ship's galley, Harlan reached out and snagged the handle to the wheelhouse door. He tugged frantically, but with the water pressure sealing it shut, he found it immovable.
As the small galley continued to flood, Harlan found himselfstruggling to remain afloat in the narrowing confines. The galley sink and faucet were now suspended on end below him while beside him, in the claustrophobic space, floated the gyrating hulk of their refrigerator.
Harlan gulped air and dived. He knew he had to think of a way out. He swam down through the watery cubicle of the galley to the sink, grabbed the faucet with both hands, and kicked viciously at the starboard side window behind it. But the leaden cold of the water seemed to drain the power from his blows. This is hopeless! he thought, as he swam numbly back toward the pocket of air above.
The moment his head emerged, he was greeted by a terrifying roar. The flood of gushing seawater into the room seemed to be accelerating. The sound of it echoing in the small sliver of space was deafening. The water sloshed back and forth between walls that rolled and dipped in a dizzying motion around him. Again, the refrigerator drifted into him. And he fought against a building sense of horror.
Treading water, Harlan tilted his head back in the narrow space next to the ceiling and tried to inhale the precious air. But the shocking cold of the seawater continued to make breathing difficult, and his breath came in shallow huffs.
Well, this is it, he thought. This must have been how Jim Miller died on the George W.
Harlan considered praying, but it occurred to him that doing so would be an admission that he was going to die. He also made up his mind "not to snivel." He would not pray, and he would not blubber. He would face the outcome, whatever that might be.
Joe Harlan weighed the chances of escaping through the galley door and out onto the back deck. But with the Tidings standing directly on end as she was, he knew the entire15,000-pound stack of crab pots would be pressing down against the door at that very moment. And, with the refrigerator floating in front of it, he conceded the escape route had been lost.
Yet even at the time, in the midst of all the terror and commotion, Joe Harlan realized that there was something strange about his ongoing ordeal. For he could see virtually everything. With his adrenaline flowing, his senses had some-how become heightened — and now a whole new world seemed to open up before him. When he dived again, he saw, through the blue-green tint of the water, the forms of the faucet and the window behind it, while the blocky brown figure of the refrigerator bobbed above him, suspended in the water overhead.
There was something strange about it all. Harlan knew there were no lights burning on the boat. Everything had gone dead. There was "zero power." Perhaps it was moon-bright up top. But then he recalled that there had been no sign of the moon on such an inclement night. Yet, submerged as he was, Harlan could see clearly through the seawater inside the boat, as well as out into the light green sea space on the other side of the window.
Adrift in the ocean current, the hull of the Tidings bounced now in the lumpy winter seas like a floating berg of ice, with barely 10 percent of her whole self still showing above the surface.
Entombed inside the sinking hull of the Tidings, Joe Harlan was also feeling the weight of his impossible predicament close in on him, and his emotions built toward a breaking point.
He thought of his lovely young wife, Mary Ellen. She had soft brown hair, and beautiful blue eyes. They had met four years before in Kodiak; Harlan had hired her to do the cooking for the boat during a herring season. They had married soon after that, and now they were the proud parents of a beautiful one-year-old daughter, Chelsea.
In the hardworking and yet contented years since then, Joe Harlan and his wife had built a fine house together outside of Kodiak in the Basket Flats area along Sergeant Creek. Harlan could see the ocean from the balcony of his home. And he had one of the best silver-salmon fishing holes on Kodiak Island right in his own backyard. During the salmon-spawning season in the lush and beautiful summer months on the island, he often had to put up with Kodiak bears who wandered onto his backyard property and competed for those same spawning salmon.
Joe Harlan loved his family. Besides, he had mortgage payments to make, and a lot of living to do. The whole damned thing just wasn't fair. He couldn't bear to accept it! He couldn't "just give up!"
The injustice of the moment sent Harlan into an emotional spiral that carried him over the edge. And he erupted into a blind rage. Wild with anger and determination, he sucked in another brief pull of air and dived again for the sink. He would make another attempt to break out the window. But this time, he would try another method. He swam to the sink, then grabbed the faucet tightly again with both hands and began repeatedly ramming his head into the glass.
Suddenly, the window exploded from its mounts. Harlan watched as it tumbled out into the pale green void and fell into the watery oblivion below.
All of a sudden, Harlan felt outside of himself. Imagininghimself to be a sea otter, he swam nimbly ahead through the small opening as if it were the most natural thing, arched his back, and headed directly for the surface.
In the strange and unexplained illumination that still remained, Harlan was able to see the hull of the Tidings as he swam upward. Man, I can't be that far from the surface, he thought as he stroked "up and up and up." The moment he broke through the surface, he felt himself return to his old self. It was like breaking into a "completely different world again!"
Harlan gasped wildly for air.
Bruce Hinman was drifting next to the bobbing stern of the Tidings when a man's head exploded through the surface, popping up right alongside him.
Choking, thrashing against the water, the man coughed heavily and spun in his direction.
"Hinman! You ugly son of a bitch!" he yelled.
It was none other than his skipper, Joe Harlan.
"Joe! Damn, I thought you were dead!" shot back Hinman, elated to see him.
Hinman's levity at seeing Harlan was quickly tempered, however, by the hopeless realization that there was no way to survive the present predicament. The canister containing the life raft had apparently failed to release when the Tidings rolled over, or perhaps it had released, only to get tangled up in the rigging or the crab pots. It didn't matter. Without that life raft, they knew they were all "as good as dead."
"What are we going to do?" shouted Hinman to Joe Harlan. "Did we get off a Mayday call?"
Harlan had tried, but he couldn't be positive that anyone had heard it.
There was nothing the men could do now but tread water and wait. With the wind blowing offshore, there would be no way to try to swim to shore. The deadly effects of hypothermia commonly paralyzed and drowned most men adrift in such seas in a few short minutes, at least those wearing only work clothes. Some began to sink the moment they hit the water. Even if Harlan, and Hinman, and the others could remain afloat, the wind and waves would eventually carry their bodies out to sea, where they would be lost forever.
When one crewman realized how grim things looked, he announced that he might just as well swim back down into the wheelhouse of the Tidings, get his pistol, and shoot himself.
Suddenly, an object "as large a dinosaur" exploded out of the water between Hinman and his skipper. It was the fiberglass canister that housed the Tidings's life raft. The canister was about the size and shape of a fifty-five-gallon oil drum.
"Grab that SOB!" yelled Hinman.
The four crewmen converged on it. "Pull the cord!" yelled Joe Harlan.
While his crewmates treaded water nearby, Hinman began to peel off the line as fast as his numbed arms could move. He pulled and pulled, and after what seemed like several hundred feet of line later, he aired what everyone was thinking.
"God Almighty! This must be some kind of joke! We've got nothing but a coil of line here!"
"Pull! Pull faster!" yelled one terrified crewmen.
"Damn, man! I'm pulling as fast as I can," shot back Hinman.
Moments later, Hinman was forced to stop. The frighteningcold was beginning to press in on him, and he'd run out of breath.
Joe Harlan soon rejoined Hinman in the effort. He pulled what seemed to be literally hundreds of feet of line from what they had supposed to be the life raft canister. It was beginning to look like a fisherman's prank — an unbelievably cruel prank — had been played on them. What if the white fiberglass canister floating in front of them, the canister designed to house the ship's life raft, was filled with nothing but a large, unending, useless coil of line?
Minutes dragged by as Hinman continued to extract the line. As hundreds of feet of useless and entangling line played out in the water all around the floundering crew, their worst fears began to take on the feel of reality. When they came to the end of the line, a winded Bruce Hinman wrapped the line around his numb, pain-racked hands and gave a final tug.
The crew treading water around him let out groans filled with disbelief and a mounting panic.
Harlan's mind raced. I just can't believe this is happening! he thought. After all we've been through, to come up short like this.
Joe Harlan moved in to help. He leaned back in the water, placed both feet on either side of the end of the canister, and wrapped the rope line around both of his clumsy, cold-ravaged hands. He reached down all the way then and pulled with everything he had.
The stubborn knot on the other end of the line gave way suddenly. Then came the pop and hiss of the CO2 cartridges discharging within. In the next instant, the bright orange canister exploded open and the raft began to inflate. But it inflated upside down.
As longtime fishermen, 290-pound Bruce Hinman and 200-pound Joe Harlan continued to work together. They quickly assessed the situation and, without comment, approached the task at hand as if driven by the logic of a single working mind.
Inflated and upright, these rafts are fluorescent orange in color and round in form, with a diameter of eight feet. Floating, they look like giant inner tubes, or perhaps like those inflatable, backyard pools that small children use--with a dome tent mounted on top.
Swimming to one side of the raft, they crawled atop it. Then, planting their feet (and combined weight of five hundred pounds) on the downwind side of the overturned raft, they reached across, grabbed its upwind edge, and lifted it in unison. When the twenty-five-knot winds caught the exposed upwind edge of the raft, it flipped it upright, scooping more than a foot of icy seawater along with it as it did.
"All right!" yelled one shivering crewman as he breaststroked nearby.
Drifting in the murderous cold of the ocean currrents, the entire crew was thoroughly chilled, their movements sluggish with the steadily advancing effects of hypothermia. Hinman and Harlan decided to drift alongside the raft in the painfully cold seawater and help their crewmates crawl aboard through the narrow doorway of the raft.
Being by far the huskiest of any man in the Tidings crew (or in the entire Kodiak crab boat fleet, for that matter), Hinman insisted on going last. It was a wise decision, for when all had been helped aboard, so numbed was he, and so completely had his strength been sucked from his body, that it took not only all of his own failing strength but also the body-wrenching efforts of the entire crew to haul him aboard.
Never in more than a century of brutal Alaskan wintershad a storm front this cold struck the Kodiak Island area. A -40° F. reading in Alaska's dry interior country near Anchorage or Fairbanks was considered cold, even dangerous, although not unusual. But it was unheard of in the moist marine waters of the Gulf of Alaska.
The storm winds howled incessantly. The unrelenting gusts turned the raft's doorway into a virtual wind tunnel. Caught without a single survival suit among the four of them, and constantly awash with more than a foot of icy Gulf of Alaska seawater crashing about inside their raft (and with more seawater washing inside all the time), the crew of the Tidings knew their lives were still in serious jeopardy.
In truth, the record cold front threatened to freeze them where they sat. Packed tightly inside the cramped and drenching confines of the dome-covered raft, the cold-ravaged crew of the fishing vessel Tidings huddled together, shivering violently as panting columns of steamy breath jetted from their mouths.
Bruce Hinman rubbed his hands together furiously. He crossed his forearms, folded his hands under his armpits, and turned numbly to his skipper.
As if the record cold and unconfirmed Mayday hadn't been enough to worry the crew of the Tidings, they now discovered another unsettling fact: Their painter, leading out from the life raft, was still tethered to the sinking hull of the Tidings. In theory, the raft was attached this way to keep the crew members in the close vicinity of the boat as long as possible. But the status of the inverted Tidings was tenuous at best, and they knew she could be heading for the bottom at any moment. If she did, the life raft and all its occupants would likely be pulled down along with her.
The bridle cord attaching the raft to the painter wasdesigned so that it was tethered directly in front of the raft's entrance hole. In any windy conditions, this meant that as long as the raft remained tied to her mother ship, the gaping hole of the doorway would always end up facing directly into the prevailing wind. That wind now drove close-cropped ocean waves against the side of the stationary side of the raft. And icy walls of sea spray began exploding in through the front door and over those inside. Short of cutting the cord and casting themselves off into the mercy of the night, there was nothing to be done.
In only minutes, the blunt force of the record cold, the knifing edge of the arctic wind, and the drenching blasts of icy sea spray had rendered the men almost unconscious. They prayed then, and waited. And as the murderous cold bore down on them, a heavy silence fell on the crew.
Like the rest of the men, skipper Joe Harlan could no longer feel his fingers. But when he sensed the growing sense of hopelessness in the raft, he turned to his men.
"Look, guys, we're going to make it. Try not to worry about it. We're in the raft. That's the important thing." He paused. "We've just got to keep fighting it," he added. And he set about to keep the men busy. "Now is the time to get things done. And the first thing we need to do is to get that door flap tied shut!"
Those nearest the door opening soon discovered that the flap ties were frozen fast to the walls of the domelike ceiling of the raft. The going was slow and painful. No one in the entire crew seemed able to carry out the simple task; their numbed fingers had lost all dexterity. Yet if the crew was going to survive, it was imperative that someone tie the thin strips of nylon fabric to the bonnet of the raft itself and shut out thedeadly chill of wind and sea. Harlan encouraged them to keep trying.
With the rest of the crew now on task, Hinman and Harlan worked frantically to open the survival kit. Perhaps there was a knife inside that would allow them to cut themselves free of their mother ship. They soon came upon the small package containing the essential lifesaving equipment such as flares, water, and food. But whoever had packed the raft had wrapped the package in layer upon layer of silver duct tape. Joe Harlan discovered that his fingers were no longer taking messages from his brain. His fingers had given out, and so Harlan began attacking the wide silver-gray tape, ripping at it with his teeth.
One crewman started praying again. "Dear God, help us! Dear God, help us!" Over and over he repeated it.
At first, Harlan appreciated the prayer; then it began to wear on him. With the icy weight of the Alaskan cold front bearing down heavily upon them, the freezing crewmen were "starting to fade." Finally, Harlan spoke to the crewman. "You know, you need to shut up now," he said steadily. "This is not good for our morale." The young crewman fell silent.
"Guys, we're going to make it. We're going to make it. So let's just keep thinking that way," Harlan added.
Joe Harlan was proud to see how his crew worked together. In a situation where fatalism might not have been out of line, they were doing all they could to save themselves. There isn't a coward in the bunch, he thought.
When they finally got the survival package open, Hinman and Harlan found no knife; they did manage to locate a small flashlight, yet its batteries had lost most of their charge. And they were forced to squint hard in the dim and intermittent flashes of light to read the flare instructions and figure out how to work them.
Harlan held out one of the flares and turned to Hinman. "Bruce, how do you work one of these damned things?"
Hinman looked at the oddly constructed flare. It had foreign instructions printed on it. He handed it back to Harlan.
"The goddamned instructions are in French!" shouted Hinman. And he cursed a streak.
Unable to read the instructions, and fearing they might accidently launch the flare into the face of someone inside the raft, Joe Harlan decided that for the time being he would not attempt to launch one at all. Joe Harlan now felt himself slowing down dramatically. And each time the cord line leading from the raft to the Tidings pulled tight, the life raft would once again contort wildly beneath them, and the severely hypothermic men inside would be drenched in yet another icy blast of seawater. It soon grew so cold inside the raft that the men agreed that they'd felt warmer while immersed in the sea itself.
Finally, after herculean efforts, they managed to get the flap tied shut. But even then, it only partially blocked the painful, drenching blasts of exploding sea.
Adrift in the cold and utter darkness, they remained tethered to the bouncing, drifting hull of the Tidings, blown back and forth across the rugged face of the sea by a knifing twenty-five-knot wind and battered by an unforgiving sea. With nearly a thousand pounds of men sprawled on the floor inside, Harlan felt certain that the constant jerking of the waves would soon tear the raft in two.
Harlan knew what he had to do. He searched for his own knife. He felt a lump inside one of his pockets, reached in one pocket, and pulled out a stray shotgun shell. Finally, he managed to locate his knife. But when he ordered his handsto open, they refused. Then, holding the knife in the palm of his stiff hands, he bent forward, took the edge of the steel blade in his teeth, and pried it open. Leaning outside through the doorway of the raft, he slowly and deliberately sawed on the line.
The line parted, and suddenly they were adrift. The violent, neck-snapping action of the raft vanished abruptly. Now as they rode up and over the rolling seas, they could hear the roar of the wind and the breaking of unseen waves off in the darkness all around.
Then a thought came to Harlan: Hypothermia isn't a bad way to die. After the initial cold goes away and you go numb, you just start slowing down. Pretty soon, you get lethargic, and you just feel like going to sleep.
He fought against the seductive nature of such thoughts by admonishing himself. "Don't you give up! Don't you go to sleep, now!"
Bruce Hinman furiously rubbed his hands together. He crossed his forearms and folded his hands under his armpits. Then he pulled the door flap a few inches to one side and scanned the late-night seascape all around.
The sinking of the fishing vessel Tidings brought with it an especially insistent message. This was the second ship to sink out from under Hinman in the last month. Both had sunk off that very same point of Kodiak Island coastline — Cape Chiniak.
The U.S. Coast Guard squad, flying out of the Kodiak Island base, had been kept hopping all season long. The rescue of Hinman from the sinking Cape Clear several weeks before hadbeen performed in huge seas in yet another blinding snowstorm.
The Coast Guard helicopter pilot had descended bravely out of the night and hovered down over the sinking vessel. But then the helicopter's rotor blades had struck the ship's mast, very nearly killing Hinman as well as the eight men on board the chopper.
Adrift then in the tall seas, Hinman had fought hard to keep from drowning as the torn and flooded suit he wore threatened to sink him. He was completely played out by the time they finally managed to hoist him aboard the Coast Guard chopper.
And now he and his crewmates were waiting to be rescued from yet another crab boat. Hinman was staring out through a silver moonlit haze of ice fog swirling across the lonely black face of the sea, when he spotted a set of approaching mast lights.
"Hey!" he yelled aloud. "Here comes a boat!"
The fifty-eight-foot fishing vessel Polar Star had been under way several miles off Cape Chiniak when the Tidings first called for help. The skipper and owner of the Polar Star, Pat Pikus, was wrestling with poor visibility himself at the time. He had been standing alone at the helm, moving ahead through a steamy, boiling cloud of ice fog, when the call for help suddenly leapt from his CB radio: "Mayday! Mayday! This is the Tidings! We're off Cape Chiniak and we're going down" Then, just as suddenly, the frantic voice fell silent.
Pikus quickly awakened his crew. "Everyone get up right away!" he yelled. "We've got a problem!"
He paused while his crew scrambled to life. Knifing, thirty-knot winds, with abladelike edge of-26°F., were driving across the face of the sea. More important, Pikus knew there were no charts that could adequately describe the chill factor — nor the utter aloneness a drenched and drifting crew would know on such a night. When crewmen Shannon McCorkle, George Pikus, Gene LeDoux, and William De Hill, Jr., had gathered in the wheelhouse, he turned to them. "Boys," he said, "we've got a boat in real trouble nearby us here. And cold as it is outside, I'm still going to need one of you men to go climb up on the flying bridge and keep a watch out from there."
The wind was blowing offshore at the time, and Pikus began his search by making passes back and forth across the brackish water between the shoreline of Kodiak Island and an imaginary point several miles offshore. He had no sooner begun his effort when another skipper's voice jumped from the radio.
The skipper claimed that the last time he'd seen the Tidings, she'd been cruising several miles offshore. Still another skipper added that he believed he'd seen a tiny blip on his radar screen in the very area where the Polar Star was now cruising. But his radar had only fastened upon it once; then it had disappeared, and had never shown again.
After completing several grid-line sweeps, Pikus was about to head back into shore for yet another pass when, squinting through the boiling fog, he thought he saw something dead ahead. It turned out to be the silver flash of a small piece of reflector tape and it was stuck to the side of the dome of a life raft.
Slowing his approach, Pikus and his crew soon spotted the stunning figure of the Tiding's stern bouncing slowly and rhythmically through the choppy black seas. The Tidings hadsomehow managed to remain afloat, standing on end, with almost her full length buried beneath the sea. Only the last few feet of her stern and rudder now showed above the surface.
As he watched, the exposed stern of the wave-slickened hull performed an eerie ballet. What remained to be seen of her rose and fell through a jet-black world of swirling fog and howling wind, a void as cold and oppressive as a journey into the unlit bowels of a walk-in freezer.
Pikus was afraid that, in the strong winds, his vessel would drift right over the top of the life raft. So he swung in downwind of it, then maneuvered in close.
"Hello! Hello! Is anyone there?" Pat Pikus yelled out his side wheelhouse door.
A muffled cry came back. Then the door flap on the side of the raft's dome flipped out and someone yelled, "Yah, we're here!"
The raft was caught in the bleak glare of his sodium lights. When he pulled along side, Pikus "looked right down into the raft." He had never seen a more pathetic sight. "No one wore survival suits," he recalls. "A couple of them were without shoes. There was a lot of water slopping around in the raft." The entire crew looked as weak and hypothermic as humans can get and still remain alive. "They wouldn't have made it another ten or fifteen minutes," he recalls.
By the time the Polar Star came abreast of their raft, Bruce Hinman was barely conscious and completely unable to stand. The crew of the Polar Star climbed overboard and literally dragged him from the raft, up and over the side, and aboard their ship. Hinman remembers landing on his back and theicy crackle of his sopping-wet clothing freezing instantly to the deck.
Joe Harlan reached up and tried as best he could to grab ahold of the railing. When they saw that he, too, was unable to be of much help to himself, the rugged young crewmen aboard the Polar Star reached down and, in one motion, hoisted him up and over the side. They tossed him onto the deck and out of the way in order to make room for the rest of the survivors.
Lying on the deck where he landed, Harlan spotted the door leading into the heated space of the Polar Star's galley. Unable to walk and unwilling to wait, he rolled over onto his stomach and began crawling toward the door. Pausing en route, Harlan gathered himself, and, raising up on one elbow, took one last glimpse at what remained of the Tidings. Waves were exploding off the few final feet of her stern.
"Good-bye, girl," he said aloud. Then he collapsed back down onto the deck and began crawling again toward the warmth of the ship's heated interior.
So intent were they on rescuing the other survivors that no one among the ship's crew noticed Harlan go. He managed to crawl in through the galley, down the hallway, and into one of the staterooms, where he pulled himself "up into somebody's bunk" and lay there "shivering violently."
"Don't let them go to sleep! Keep them awake," ordered the Coast Guard repeatedly over the radio set.
When the crew of the Polar Star found him, Harlan peered up at them with dark sunken eyes from the soft, warm bunk in which he lay.
"Look," he said, "I want you to know that I'm married. And I've got a kid. And I don't want you to think I'm a homosexual or anything. But I need someone to take off all his clothesand climb in bed with me here. Because if you don't, I think I'm going to die."
It was Polar Star deckhand Shannon McCorkle, son of well-known Kodiak harbormaster Corkie McCorkle, who did the honors.
"He was the one who brought me back to life," recalls Harlan gratefully. "The real heroes of this thing were the crewmen of the fishing vessel Polar Star," claims Joe Harlan. "There's no doubt in my mind. If we'd been out there even another fifteen minutes, we would have died. We were that close to buying it."
By the time they managed to lift aboard the nearly frozen crew of the Tidings, nearly a foot of ice had accumulated on the decks and superstructure of the Polar Star. The instant the last man arrived on board, they left the raft to drift, and immediately struck out for Kodiak.
When the Polar Star arrived back in town, there was an ambulance waiting for them, but Harlan wanted nothing to do with the hospital. "Look," he told the EMTs, "I want you guys to take my crew to the hospital. Have them checked out and make sure they're okay. But I'm going home to see my wife and my daughter."
Throughout the entire ordeal, Harlan knew that it was the love of his wife and daughter and home that had kept him going.
Now barefoot, his wet hair still matted against his head, Joe Harlan was clad in nothing more than a wool blanket when a friend drove him home. His wife came out to greet him. It was a tearful reunion.
That winter, during the bitter cold of the crab season, Joe Harlan had grown a beard. Now even his one-year-old daughterdid not recognize him. When he approached and picked her up, she asked him, "Are you Santa Claus?"
Once inside, Harlan took a long, hot bath, devoured hot platefuls of food, and spent time relaxing with his wife and daughter. At 8:00 A.M. the very next morning, Joe Harlan called a ship broker in Seattle. It was time to start shopping for a new crab boat to buy.
NIGHTS OF ICE. Copyright © 1997 by Spike Walker. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
What Our Readers Are Saying
Other books you might like