Howard Starbard knew he had a problem when the pumps couldn’t keep up with the water pouring into his 37-foot commercial fishing boat, Miss Amy.
The 63-year-old retired Alaska State Troopers commander couldn’t know he was about to spend 45 minutes in the sea, fighting to stay afloat before a relative, two good Samaritan vessels and the U.S. Coast Guard intervened to help him survive his boat’s sinking off the Southeast Alaska community of Pelican.
Starbard was power trolling for king salmon during a commercial opener Monday with his 13-year-old grandson and 35-year-old nephew about three miles off the west coast of Chichagof Island. It was the first day the Miss Amy had been out all summer.
Then the high-water alarm sounded.
Within three or four minutes, Starbard said Wednesday, he issued a Mayday call on the VHF radio. Then he told the others — grandson Timothy Drake II and nephew Chris Larsen — to haul up the fishing gear and powered the Miss Amy for the Cirus, a salmon tender some ways off toward shore.
“From that moment until I was released from the ER here in Sitka, the perception of time was distorted,” Starbard said by phone as he and family members waited for a flight home to Juneau.
Starbard, who at one point in his career served as administrative Alaska State Troopers commander based in Anchorage, retired as a major in 2006.
He’d never been on the receiving end of a rescue before.
U.S. Coast Guard watchstanders picked up the report that the Miss Amy was taking on water near Porcupine Rock and Lisianski Strait off Chichagof Island, the agency said. They issued an urgent marine broadcast, directed the launch of a helicopter and rerouted a cutter in that direction.
The Cirus and another vessel, the power troller Lucky Strike, responded to the broadcast, the Coast Guard said.
It was the Cirus that Starbard was making for as his boat took on water. Starbard sped up, dragging gear after the hydraulics to raise it went down, to get closer to the tender.
They came alongside. By then, the water was halfway up the engines and the boat was listing as it filled even faster, Starbard said.
His grandson jumped over to the tender first, with help from the Cirus crew as the churning water slammed the boats together. Then Larsen made the jump.
But at Starbard’s turn, he missed, and plunged into the frigid 6-foot seas.
Somebody threw a rescue ring but there was no footing on the boat’s stern. The crew and his family couldn’t pull him up. A ladder extended down was too high to climb out.
Starbard, growing exhausted and hypothermic, wrapped his arms around a rung and was pummeled by waves. There had been no time to put on survival gear, he said. His only mission had been to get his boat to the tender as fast as possible.
The other boat, the Lucky Strike, came alongside. Someone tossed a line into the water.
“At that point hypothermia was kind of getting to me. I was unable to really do anything,” Starbard said.
That’s when Larsen jumped into the water and got the line around his uncle so the Lucky Strike crew could hoist him aboard with an electric boat winch.
“I couldn’t keep my head up,” Starbard said, pausing a few times as he became emotional. “Chris swam with me. He kept my head up. He’s the hero.”
Fog and limited visibility prevented the vessels from leaving the area, the Coast Guard said. The survivors were hoisted into a Coast Guard Jayhawk helicopter and transferred to Sitka for medical care.
Just after 7 p.m., Amy Starbard got a call: The Coast Guard was receiving a distress signal from her husband’s boat. Her daughter got a similar call. Someone mentioned one person was unresponsive. She knew that wasn’t Larsen, an experienced deckhand. It was either her grandson or her husband.
She and her daughter boarded a flight to Sitka right away. She finally heard from Drake just before leaving.
“He said grandpa was going to the hospital,” Amy Starbard said Wednesday. “But that he was OK.”
Her husband was treated for hypothermia, tested, and released.
On Wednesday, Starbard was battered and bruised but thankful not only for his nephew’s help but the aid from the two Good Samaritan vessels that helped pull them all from the water.
“We’re all very very very grateful,” Amy Starbard said.
Howard Starbard doesn’t know what caused the boat to take on water. The Miss Amy sank in about 150 feet of water, carrying salmon as well as about 260 gallons of diesel and small amounts of motor and hydraulic oil — Starbard was careful to note the precise estimates.
The family on Wednesday was going over photos of a decade’s worth of memories and counting their emotional losses. Drake took his first steps aboard the boat. His PlayStation 5 was aboard when it sank.
Starbard’s Alaska State Troopers retirement badge was in there somewhere, too.