There was a big run out tide Monday morning before the opener. Skipper got up at 4 AM to run out the Grass bar. Low water was a 6:47 AM with 12 feet of water moving. Crossing the bar at low water could get a bit dangerous. Unfortunately, this proved to be true, though not for us. We were floating around waiting for the 7 AM work bell to go off when we heard someone relaying a MAYDAY call to the Coast Guard on channel 16. Hearing a MAYDAY never ceases to send a chill straight through to my spine, each and every time.
At first, we were getting just getting bits of information, waiting for the story to unfold. The fishing vessel (f/v) Topnotch was standing by a vessel in the break at Kokenhenik Bar. Vessel was upright but appeared to be without power, two souls on board. Coast Guard asked the make and color of the vessel. Topnotch reported that it was a 30’ aluminum bowpicker. Well, that narrows it down to about half the fleet. After a few more minutes Topnotch spelled out the vessel name “Golf-Uniform-Lima-Kilo-Alpha-November-Alpha”. Skipper and I looked at each other, incredulous. At the same time, we both said “Did he just spell out Gulkana? That’s my buddy, Billy Jr., fisherman, direct marketer, Copper River Salmon Marketing Association Board member, Prince William Sound Yacht Club President, Wine on Wednesday (WOW) goer and boat builder extraordinaire. 6 flags over Billy. So named after the 6 pennants he flies on his boat. Flew.
Topnotch, being a single engine, fiberglass Miller rig, and the wrong side of the bar, was unable to assist. There would have been 2 to rescue if he had attempted. The Gulkana was on bottom in the breakers and taking ‘em over the cabin. I waved to him on his was out the night before. We were both leaving the harbor at the same time. I could see he had his girlfriend Lori with him. I don’t think she usually fishes with him but since it was a long weekend, Memorial Day and all, she probably had an extra day off. It was a nice forecast and probably thought it would be a fun time on the flats.
The f/v Cape Fear , an aluminum twin jet boat, came in from the other side of the bar to tow Billy and Lori out of there, but got the tow line sucked in his jet and was unable to assist. The f/v Sewak, also an aluminum twin jet rig was able to get a hold of the Gulkana and tow them out of there with both on deck in their survival suits. The Sewak is Bill Sr., Billy Jr’s dad. Billy built both boats.
In the mean time the Coast Guard was sending a helicopter with a pump, but it was 45 minutes out. The Sewak was able to tow them to safety but reported that only the bow rollers of the Gulkana was the only part above water. She sank in 80 feet of water.
Here is the story I was able to piece together. Billy was running out, rode a wave, came down on the bottom and snapped off his two lower units. A wave hit his stern, busted out both windows, flooded the engine room and left them without power, which is why they never made the MAYDAY call. Several 12 footers crashed down, tweaking the cabin and making it impossible to open the door. They were able to escape out the window. They were pounded by breakers about 45 minutes before anyone could get to them and tow them out of there.
It’s been a crazy season so far. The weather hasn’t been too bad, only that one opener, but there sure have been lots of rescues. Luckily, so far, everyone has made it through.
Fishing was pretty good on Monday then slowed down a bit for Thursday's opener. Thats the way she goes though. We'll try 'er again on Monday. Until then, eat fish!
I’ll catch ya on the flip side.