Kaleb Westfall has fished for salmon in Bristol Bay for two decades.
Earlier this month he was fishing for halibut in the waters near Togiak. He and his crewmate were headed home to Dillingham when is voyage home was met with an untimely storm as the winds and waves picked up.
“We got around the corner to Protection (Point) and then it was a straight east wind on the other side there,” Westfall said.
He had expected four-foot waves on his trip back but encountered giant swells after they rounded the tip of the Nushagak Peninsula.
“Those four-foot waves were now 16 plus, and every once in a while, 20,” he said. “Surfing a 32 footer on those — a little difficult, absolutely.”
A heavy east wind meant he had to keep the bow of his boat, the F/V Peter, pointed towards King Salmon to face the swells. As the waves struck his boat, he realized they needed help.
“First we hit the radio and did a distress vessel and explained we’re not sinking but any wave here could take us over and capsize us,” he said.
As they called for help, fatigue started to set in.
“At some point I’m thinking my arm’s failing, my body’s cramping and I’m losing control in my dexterity,” Westfall recalled. “Those thoughts creep into your head that you can’t do this forever — you are going to fail. And it’s hard to multitask and disallow those thoughts, so I had to put it to one wave at a time.”
Westfall said they were about five miles from shore. He didn’t get a response to his call right away, but he kept reaching out.
“Through the AMSEA training they say even if you can’t hear anybody keep yapping because they might be able to hear you and you may not be able to hear them back,” he said.
It turned out that multiple people heard his call. The Coast Guard flew to the location in a helicopter and OBI Seafoods sent a 100-foot tender. The tender broke waves and allowed Westfall to follow its surf while the Coast Guard monitored the situation.
Westfall said he was lucky to get back to shore, and it was thanks to the extra effort he put into safety precautions.
“It turned out to be a hellacious storm, but all my training and all my safety equipment worked,” he said. “I tell people I work super hard, and 95% of the time it doesn’t matter, but 5% of the time there’s an opportunity for things to get better or that extra hard work paid off.”
Westfall thanked his training with the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association to help him maximize his odds for survival.
“I don’t think I would have been nearly as comfortable or maybe not without the AMSEA training. It’s a wonderful program,” he said.
They returned to the Dillingham harbor around 2 a.m. the next morning after fighting the storm for around 8 hours.
“I had to make that decision on ‘how much longer can I do this?’ The whole thing took 25 hours coming from Togiak so I was driving 25 hours straight and about half of those hours were panic hours,” he said.
Westfall urged everyone on the water should make sure their safety equipment is up to date — and to be prepared for emergencies.
More information about the AMSEA and their training can be found on www.amsea.org. In case of an emergency, the Coast Guard can be reached at (907) 463-2000.