Coast Guard rescues sailor in storm 145 miles west of Sitka

The Coast Guard rescued a man on Oct. 11 about 145 miles west of Sitka. (Image from U.S. Coast Guard)

A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter crew rescued a man whose sailboat had overturned on Oct. 11 while sailing solo across the Gulf of Alaska about 145 miles west of Sitka.

The Coast Guard received an emergency call shortly after 3 p.m. alerting them to the GPS location of a mariner in distress.

Coast Guard Commander Rand Semke was the co-pilot on the case. He said they gathered little information from an emergency beacon signal, but not much more than the location, and the name and registration information for the Ananda — a small sailing yacht on a long-distance voyage.

“We did not know anything about the nature of distress, we could make some assumptions based on the weather that we were seeing that a sailboat out there would be having some difficulty,” Semke said. “But we didn’t know how many people were on board or really why the beacon was activated.”

Semke and three other helicopter crew members from Air Station Sitka took off around 4 p.m., heading into a storm that was blowing 70 knots with 25-foot seas.

“So that was that was primarily what was going through our mind is can we do this with the weather and the gas on the helicopter in the amount of time that we can,” Semke said. “We wanted to get going quickly because a rescue in this type of weather is much easier to accomplish in the daylight than at night. And we knew sunset was coming quick.”

 


Semke said about a quarter of an hour before they reached the source of the emergency beacon’s signal, they made contact with the mariner on the radio, and learned that his 33-foot sailboat was adrift on its side. It had lost its sails and rigging and had a broken rudder.

The unnamed sailor told them he was alone and was still aboard the crippled vessel in his Gumby survival suit.

About five minutes before the rescue team sighted the Ananda, they’d lost radio contact. Luckily, rescue swimmer Juan Espinosa Gomez was able to spot the vessel – a tiny spot lit up on their infrared cameras. The team hovered over the drifting sailboat and lowered Espinosa Gomez into the hostile waters.

“The seas were all still 30 feet. And as I came across the back or the stern of the boat, I made eye contact to the survivor and I yelled at him to get in the water. He looked back at me he retreated back into his cabin, came back out with some luggage,” Espinosa Gomez said. “He had like a Pelican case wrapped in a life vest. And I commanded him to climb up and jump off the leeward side of the vessel so that the wind wouldn’t get in between him and the vessel.”

Espinosa Gomez said he helped the man swim away from the Ananda, and as it drifted away they were hoisted in the air by the rest of the crew. The man was cold, but not hypothermic, and had no apparent physical injuries. The team then made its way to Yakutat, landing around 8 p.m., and the man was treated by medics on the ground.

Coast Guard Commander Semke said there are a lot of lessons to learn from the man’s hazardous voyage, but first and foremost is preparation.

“Especially open ocean voyages, that can be certainly hazardous especially in this area. So using really all available tools for anticipating weather forecasts and sea state,” Semke said. “Where this mariner did succeed was his preparation in putting his survival suit on early and being ready to abandon ship if necessary, as well as monitoring [VHF] channel 16, which is always something that really every mariner should do, no matter how short their voyage.”

But the biggest factor in the man’s survival? The radio beacon that sent his geolocation to the Coast Guard.

“Without that there really is no way the Coast Guard would have been alerted to his distress,” Semke said. “So that really was what saved his life,” Semke said.

KCAW - Sitka

KCAW is our partner station in Sitka. KTOO collaborates with partners across the state to cover important news and to share stories with our audiences.

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