Crabbers tell of rescuing fishing crew

Disabled vessel's distress calls summon crab boat to pull three from boiling surf off Unalaska

Posted: Sunday, December 08, 2002

EVERETT, Wash. - In nearly three decades of fishing, Capt. Tim Vincent is most proud of the catch he and his crew hauled in on their last trip to the Bering Sea.

The raw wind was blowing at 35 to 40 knots, and the ocean swells ran to 20 feet. Off the rocky north coast of Unalaska Island, near a place called Cape Cheerful, a 44-foot halibut boat drifted powerless.

Vincent, of Stanwood, was piloting a crabbing vessel called the Stormy Sea about 25 miles away. He received distress calls on his radio, each more urgent than the last, and headed toward the troubled boat, Rocket II.

Aboard it, Jeb Morrow, 25, of Sitka and his crew of two were preparing to abandon ship. They loaded a raft with emergency supplies, only to see a wave snap the raft's tether, carrying it away with two of their three survival suits.

Morrow radioed again, telling Vincent what had happened. Vincent suggested that they don wetsuits. Vincent then heard Morrow curse and announce it was time to jump. The Stormy Sea was still 15 minutes away.

Recalling the Oct. 21 incident for The Herald of Everett, Vincent said he was worried the Stormy Sea wouldn't arrive in time to pluck the men from the water. Two other ships arrived first, but they were deep-draft vessels and could not move in close enough to attempt a rescue.

Soon, though, his two crewmen - William Edwards of Mukilteo and Ken Petersen of Sultan - were pointing toward the 25-foot breakers crashing toward shore. The men overboard were just outside the surf line.

"It looked like otters or a piece of driftwood, and then I realized there was some international-survival-suit orange in there," Vincent said.

He spun the 151-foot Stormy Sea so its stern faced the beach, and began backing toward the crew, steering with a jet-like thruster unit on his vessel's bow. His crew readied a floating life sling. They also threw a rope-and-wood staircase, known as a Jacob's ladder, over the stern.

As the vessel neared, a large swell tore Morrow away from his crew. He waved off help and directed Vincent to go for the other men.

One of his crew slipped into the life sling and waited to be pulled aboard. When the skipper of the halibut boat was tossed a line, he was able to clamber aboard, largely on his own power. But a remaining crewman struggled to keep his head above the swells.

Vincent said he was struggling, too, trying to get close to the man without foundering his vessel or sucking the hapless fisherman into his ship's propeller.

Finally, Petersen climbed down the Jacob's ladder. Dangling from the side of the vessel, he grabbed the man by his shoulder and hauled him out of the water.

"It was just one of those type things. It could have been yourself," Petersen said. "Personally, I was as scared as they were."

Morrow, a second-generation fisherman, told The Herald that he and his crew had all but abandoned hope. The surf, he said, looked "just like a big washing machine, just a big, boiling cauldron."

"Tim is a hero, without question," Morrow said.

The U.S. Coast Guard prepared a report on the Oct. 21 incident, issuing it in early November as a safety alert for fishermen operating in Alaskan waters. Officials credited Vincent's idea of having the crew don wetsuits as a key reason they were able to survive the soaking.

"This was the most satisfying thing I've ever done up there," Vincent said. "They were going to die."



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