Kodiak fisherman survives 10 hours in Shelikof Strait

Man clings to life after boat tipped over in roaring wind

Posted: Monday, November 19, 2007

ANCHORAGE - The Pacific Lady had just been knocked over by a hurricane-like blast of wind in roaring seas. The vessel was on its side. Windows that should have displayed sky instead revealed ocean green. Water gushed into the wheelhouse through every opening, big and small.

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Alan Ryden, fishing alone on the 42-foot boat, pulled his survival suit over a fleece jacket and had just enough time to call Mayday over the radio as the vessel went down.

As he fumbled out of the wheelhouse, struggling through the chaos of water and debris, Ryden said, he wondered if this was how it would end.

The Kodiak fisherman was a mile offshore from the Alaska Peninsula, 70 miles southwest of Kodiak Island in the Shelikof Strait. It was 2:30 p.m. Friday.

Nobody heard his Mayday, he would learn later.

Ryden, 47, floated for 10 hours and 14 miles, buoyed by a small personal flotation device amid 16-foot seas and 50-knot winds. The sun set and the moon rose as waves crashed over him. At one point, Ryden said in an interview Saturday, he shouted out over the clamor: "I'm not going to die out here."

Ryden recounted his experience by phone from on board the Heritage, a 70-foot-long fishing vessel that finally found and rescued him.

"The fact that he was in good shape was really remarkable," said a U.S. Coast Guard spokeswoman, Petty Officer Sara Francis.

Ryden, a commercial fisherman for 20 years, said he had been fishing for western gulf black cod by himself near Sand Point since the end of September. He was bringing the wooden-hulled Pacific Lady back to Kodiak, a routine two-day trip of over 350 miles, when winds starting picking up.

He had turned the boat toward the shoreline to anchor in protected water when disaster boarded the Pacific Lady.

"I got pushed over by a williwaw," he said, describing the sudden blast of wind that shot across the water. "It was the definition of a real williwaw."

The gust caught the boat and pushed it on its side at about 40 degrees. Water came over the rail. Ryden couldn't correct it. Within minutes, the wheelhouse was taking on water, he said.

There was no time to deploy the life raft in the stern. He had only enough time, after tangling in the rigging of the boat going under, to grab a Styrofoam float ring with netting, a buoyant apparatus meant only for emergencies.

In the water, Ryden knew he had no chance of swimming the mile to shore. Waves crested over his flotation device and he rolled into the water more than a dozen times, nearly losing the device before he tied it to his wrist.

"It was all pretty wild, but it's just survival mode that you get into," Ryden said.

During those 10 hours in the water, he drifted away from shore, farther and farther into the North Pacific. He thought about his two young sons, 1 and 5 years old. He told himself: "I got to raise my sons. I'm not going to die out here."

When nighttime came and there were still no rescuers, he began to wonder if the Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon, which is supposed to activate when a boat sinks, had operated. "It's a real uphill battle to hope that you're going to be found at that point," he said.

He prayed. "It was a God thing. Big time," said the part-time pastor at Kodiak Christian Fellowship.

It wasn't until six hours after Ryden went into the water that the Coast Guard would detect the automatic distress call from the emergency beacon. Coast Guard crews from Kodiak responded immediately but it would take them about an hour to arrive on scene, 150 miles away.

Crew members on a C-130, and later a HH-60 Jayhawk, said the conditions were poor. Two petty officers on board the C-130 were vomiting from the turbulence, said Lt. Steve McKechnie, the plane's pilot.

The crews couldn't see Ryden. All they could see was a strobe light from his survival suit, but they weren't sure the light was near him. Or, if it was, that he was alive.

The Jayhawk had a rescue swimmer aboard but its crew knew that sending the swimmer into the rough waters to hoist Ryden in a basket would be treacherous. "It's pretty dangerous to put someone down in those conditions," said the helicopter pilot, Lt. Curtis Brown.

So from 200 feet above the water, the C-130 crew threw down a life raft, aiming for the strobe light. The raft landed perfectly near Ryden - a scenario that usually takes place only in ideal conditions when everything goes according to plan, McKechnie said.

"The raft that they dropped bumped right into me," Ryden said. "It was amazing."

Ryden was able to clamber aboard the raft - no easy feat itself.

When the nearby Heritage arrived minutes later, its crew threw Ryden a life ring and pulled him aboard just as an ocean roll was coming. "The guys jerked me aboard, kind of like a big halibut," Ryden said.

"I didn't have a lot of strength left," he said. "I was concerned when I saw them coming up with the life ring. I thought, 'I can't even hang on to a life ring by now.' But the adrenaline kicked in."

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