>In the Bering Sea, 28 Oct 2008

>You may have noticed a gap in our blog coverage specifically, Oct 22-October 26th. During those days, ACUSHNET was tasked with most serious of missions, Search and Rescue (SAR). SAR is a mission that instantaneously melds the crew in a single minded pursuit of helping out a fellow mariner in distress.

It starts with a massive adrenaline dump to the system… There are fellow sailors in peril on the high seas! The call comes in; the bridge crew swiftly begins plotting positions, courses to intercept, looking at weather, etc. Deck Force scrambles to put up storm lines and prepares the cutter and smallboats for heavy weather. Engineers start lining up the offline engines and preparing the ship for maximum performance. Everyone is scrambling to help – with one thought on their mind… Lets Go!

For us, the call came in about 1000 on the morning of the 22nd of October. We had spent the previous night seeking the lee of a storm in Beaver Inlet. This wasn’t just any storm, this was a monster. A 949 mb low, packing winds in excess of 110 mph and seas around 35 feet – about 3 ½ stories high. From front to back, it measured over 600 nm wide and it tracked just south of the Aleutian Island Chain as it sped eastward.

Sometime early in the morning of the 22nd, F/V KATMAI’s electronic position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) began transmitting their distress. Additionally, an e-mail was flashed to another nearby F/V – telling them that the F/V KATMAI suffered a steering casualty and was taking on water aft. Their position was about 100 nm west of Adak, Alaska – halfway out the Aleutian Island Chain. In terms of mileage, it was about 500 nm away from us. Our boss, the Command that manages tactical control of the Cutter while on patrol, Coast Guard District 17 (D17), also launched multiple aircraft from Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak to investigate and assist. Those aircraft, an HC-130 and an HH60 Jayhawk would arrive much quicker than we could and would be the first responders in this case.

CGC ACUSHNET started the first part of the 500 NM journey, pounding into 15 foot seas and 50 knot winds gusting about 60. Due to the waves, we could only advance at a 2/3 bell, 10.5 knots because of the seas. After a rocky but uneventful passage through Unalga Pass, ACUSHNET picked up speed to a full bell (15 knots) and began racing westward towards the distress call and through the storm. The wind speed kept increasing over the next several days and the seas as well. Just before ACUSHNET reached Sequam Pass, the seas were on average 25 ft with some waves topping 35 feet. It is somewhat sobering to look out the bridge wing of the ship – which is 24 feet above the water – and not be able to see anything except for a green wall of water coming at you. The one thing that allowed us to maintain our full speed was that we were riding with the waves and not pounding into them. It is still somewhat scary to feel the ship sliding down the backside of those monsters, wondering if the ship would continue to slide out of control and go beam to the seas. That would not be good.

At Sequam Pass, the Operations Officer, LT Robb Roble, noticed the storm had passed a little further south than anticipated and the forecasted winds were going to back from the east to the North and continue to increase in speed to well over 75 mph. ACUSHNET elected to take Seguam Pass and use the Aleutian Islands as cover to be able to continue to head west at max speed. Snow and ice began to pelt us but the lookouts doggedly maintained their vigilant watch rotating every hour to drive the ship on the helm before returning to lookout duties.
Shortly before midnight on the 23rd, we arrived onscene having traveled the 500 NM in 37 hours. D17 had already coordinated multiple aircraft sorties from Kodiak as well as Alaska Air National Guard Aircraft to search for survivors, finding 4 huddled together in a liferaft. Unfortunately 5 other crewmembers were found deceased. Two crewmembers from the F/V KATMAI continued to remain missing.

D17 selected a search pattern for us to follow based on wind, current, drift etc. For the next several days we pursued the search for survivors, finding little bits of debris here and there – some no bigger than a lid to a 5 gallon bucket in the vast ocean but were unable to locate the last two missing crewmembers. Lookouts volunteered to stay longer than their watches in order to help search, but to no avail. Temperatures dropped as snow storms moved in and out of the search area, but many volunteered extra time topside to help search. Winds still remained above 25 knots most of the time and the seas remained at least 18 feet.

After several days of searching, in concert with a number of aircraft from the Coast Guard and Air National Guard, we were not able to find the missing fisherman and D17 suspended the search. But not before we crossed through the search area one more time looking…..
There were highs….. the call to go… the rescue by the HH60 of four crewmembers and the lows…. Finding the bodies of those who did not survive and those that would never be found. For many of the crew, it was their first SAR case, for others one of many. But all were united in their pursuit of the mission, while their thoughts, prayers and hearts go out to the families who lost so much. Fair winds and following seas to the departed. Welcome back to the survivors.

Thoughts from the crew:

SN Bolton: “It felt really good to be able to get on scene and be able to help in the search but it was really disappointing every time we heard that another dead body was found. It’s really sad to know that there are two people that were never found.”

FN Venable: “We did our best but I wish we could have found them to get some closure for their families.”

SN McAllister: “I was really excited to go out on my first SAR case. I remember my Company Commander at boot camp saying how I’ll never forget it. All I could think about was how I couldn’t wait to stand lookout watch to help with the search. It’s too bad we couldn’t find everyone.”

BM3 Short: “It’s really gratifying to know we are doing something so noble.”

DC1 Amerson: “I feel really sorry for the families’ loss and that they won’t have any closure. I wish we could have gotten the families some closure. As for going through rough seas, that’s what we do.”

ENS Stec: “This was my first real SAR case since I’ve been in the Coast Guard. You hear about the Coast Guard doing SAR and saving lives and recovering bodies all the time on the news and stuff. It really feels a lot different when you are actually on scene and looking for survivors. It’s pretty disappointing when you have to call off a case and there are still people missing.”

ENS Rose: “I was proud to be part of the search effort but disappointed that we were unable to bring closure to the families.”
From Cmdr. Andy Sugimoto, Coast Guard Cutter ACUSHNET (WMEC 167) Commanding Officer