Sonar techs join search for two men

Memorial today for Mayer, Metlicka, missing since Nov. 20 boat mishap

Posted: Monday, November 29, 2004

A husband and wife from Idaho who used their sonar equipment in March to retrieve the body of a man drowned in Auke Bay have joined the search for two men missing since their boat capsized on Nov. 20 near Horse Island.

Gene and Sandy Ralston, environmental consultants from Kuna, Idaho, near Boise, are searching a 1,000-foot wide by 112 mile-long rectangle southeast of the island with the families and friends of James Metlicka and Nick Mayer.

Metlicka, 30, of Eagle River, and Mayer, 31, of Juneau, were hunting and crabbing on Nov. 20, using Metlicka's 26-foot cabin cruiser, the Julie K.

The boat was reported capsized at 4 p.m. that day, and the U.S. Coast Guard, Alaska State Troopers and SEADOGS called off their search the following afternoon.

The two men, friends since they met at age 11 in elementary school, are presumed dead.

A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. today at Centennial Hall.

In the meantime, the search for clues continues with the help of the Ralston's side scanning sonar.

"(The Ralstons) are angels to us," said Tom Metlicka, James' father. "They're two of the most super people you've ever seen in your life. Obviously, we're going to do everything we possibly can for them."

Mayer, the son of Dennis and Linda Mayer, was born in Phoenix. He leaves a wife, Lori Martinson, and two sons, Ryan and Austin.

Metlicka, the son of Thomas and Peggy Metlicka, was born in Juneau. He also leaves a wife, Michelle.

"(James and Nick) have been tromping partners forever," Thomas Metlicka said.

They also have excellent survival skills, according to their families.

Mayer enjoyed fishing, crabbing and camping with his family. He, his father, Dennis, and his brother, Troy, owned Northern Lights Development in Juneau.

Metlicka and his wife moved to Eagle River in 1998. He worked as the corporate officer for Alaska Foundation Technology, a family-owned business. He bought the Julie K at the beginning of this summer so he could do a little more hunting. He owns an air boat in Eagle River, and the family has a Boston Whaler in Juneau.

"Jim came down here this summer three or four times, and (he and Nick) went out and did a little crabbing and went fishing and so forth," Metlicka said. "They always hung out together."

Mayer and Metlicka left Juneau on the morning of Saturday, Nov. 20, intending to pull crab pots and hunt for deer.

The weather took a turn for the worse in the afternoon, with 15 to 20 knot southeast winds, one to two miles of visibility, two-foot seas and a ceiling of 500 feet, according to the Coast Guard.

The two men were seen by Juneau resident Dale Erickson, who was with his wife and daughter at their cabin Saturday afternoon on Horse Island, Tom Metlicka said.

At some point before 4 p.m., Erickson saw two men pulling crab pots near Horse Island. He looked back a few moments later and saw the same boat overturned, with one person still clinging to the craft.

The Coast Guard received the report of the overturned Julie K at 4:06 p.m.

Just before 8 p.m., the Command Center's 47-foot Station Juneau boat found items from the Julie K, with the assistance of a Coast Guard helicopter crew from Sitka.

At 8:21 p.m., the Julie K was discovered 150 to 220 yards from Horse Island. Two drowned dogs were found in the cabin, an assortment of personal flotation devices were found on the boat, but there were no visible distress signals, the Coast Guard said.

The Coast Guard, Alaska State Troopers and SEADOGS continued searching the island and the surrounding waters until the search was called off on Sunday afternoon.

Tom Metlicka and his wife, Peggy, were in Biloxi, Miss., when they received the news that their son and Mayer were missing.

"The outpouring in this town has been phenomenal," Tom said. "People have been out there every day, and planes are still flying over looking. There have just been an armada of boats out there."

Divers Alfred Cook, Allan Culbreath and Scott Duval have been standing by since Sunday, Nov. 21, with their diving gear. All three have been helping search with Cook's underwater camera, attached to a 250-foot line.

"(Dale Erickson) was very helpful in going back and trying to show us what he saw and where he saw it," said Cook, a friend of both families. "He basically saw the boat and two guys on it before it flipped. And then, after it flipped, he saw part of it upside down and it appeared there was one person still clinging to the boat."

With the help of Erickson's account, the searchers found one of Metlicka's crab pots last week about a mile from where the Julie K eventually beached on Horse Island, 12 miles west of Juneau.

Ralston came to Juneau in March and used a rotating sonar device attached to a tripod to locate the body of Charles "Charlie" Jacobs on March 6 in 120 feet of water near the harbor in Auke Bay. Jacobs had been missing since Feb. 13.

A member of that search referred the Metlickas and Mayers to the Ralstons.

The Ralstons are self-employed as environmental consultants who work on water-related issues, hydrographic surveying, fishing inventories and water-quality sampling.

They have the flexibility to volunteer on searches when they're needed and generally ask that their traveling expenses be covered.

The Ralstons arrived in Juneau on Friday. By Saturday morning, all 1,200 pounds of their equipment - computers, a winch with 1,000 feet of cable and cold and wet weather gear - was also in town.

The Ralstons have mounted their equipment on a volunteer's 38-foot long aluminum Munson. Three volunteers are helping them on the vessel.

"(The crab pot) was one of our starting points, and the other end was where the boat came ashore," Gene Ralston said. "We were using that as a center line for our search grid, and searching lines parallel to that line in each direction."

The Ralstons began looking Saturday afternoon and were back out on the water before 7 a.m. Sunday morning. By noon, high winds had shut them down. They hoped to return at 7 this morning.

"Because our equipment is suspended from a cable attached to a winch on the boat, as the boat moves around that pulls the underwater equipment and distorts the image pretty badly," Ralston said.

"If we get a really calm day, where winds are under 5 to 8 miles an hour, we should be able to create good images," he said.

The area in the rectangle is fairly clean, with few rocks. But the waters off Horse Island and closer to Admiralty Island are known for their hidden reefs. If needed, the search will eventually wind through that area.

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