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26 hours adrift in a fish tote

When a boat sinks offshore, there aren’t many ways to remain safe (or alive) while waiting to be rescued. When the 28-foot fishing boat Kaitlin Rai was swamped by a wave and capsized Sept. 7 off Sitka, Alaska, 19-year-old Ryan Harris had to improvise.

A Coaast Guard rescue swimmer comforts fisherman Ryan Harris before he was hoisted from the fish tote that saved his life.

There were two survival suits on board, but neither he nor the skipper was wearing one. The men climbed onto the overturned hull, but then the aluminum boat sank. “We had no radio, no cell phones,” Harris told the Daily Sitka Sentinel.

Stonie “Mac” Huffman, the boat’s owner and an experienced fisherman in his 40s, helped Harris into a large plastic fish tote left floating when the boat sank. Huffman donned one of the survival suits floating nearby and grabbed the tote’s lid, which he used as an improvised flotation device. He made it to shore 24 hours later and flagged down rescuers. Harris spent 26 hours adrift in the 4-by-4-foot container until a Coast Guard helicopter hoisted him to safety.

“I never thought I was going to die, but I was worried about Mac,” Harris told the newspaper from a hospital room two days after his rescue.

Harris says he gave himself a “pep talk,” repeating for hours, “I’m Ryan Hunter Harris, and I’m not going to die here.” He kept his spirits up by singing “Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer” and “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”

Joel Brady-Power, a commercial fisherman and photographer, was in the area where the capsize occurred, operating Nerka, his 43-foot salmon troller, with fishing partner Tele Aadsen. Aadsen documented conditions the day of the sinking on her blog, Hooked ( “Whitecaps slam-dance between boats as the wind holds steady at 39 knots. The gusts are dragon’s breath, visibly rip-snorting through the bay,” Aadsen wrote.

'I'm not going to die here,' Harris told himself.

The following morning, a Saturday, Brady-Power and Aadsen pulled anchor at 4:30 a.m. amid easing conditions. Over the VHF they heard about a missing boat. A survivor had been recovered on shore, but a second fisherman remained missing. They searched for hours. Assuming the worst, they decided to head ashore with their catch. Then Brady-Power spotted something.

“Immediately ahead, 60 feet to our port, a blue tote wallows among the waves like an apparition. The opening faces away from us, listing heavily to one side. A dreadful thought pops into my mind: Is a body weighing it down?” Aadsen wrote.

Brady-Power radioed the Coast Guard and described what he saw. Then he spotted a second tote. “Several hundred yards ahead bobs a second sky-blue vessel. This one sits upright, and a tiny dark spot peeks out of the top,” Aadsen wrote. “He’s in that one. … He’s waving. He’s alive!”

Then they watched, with Brady-Power taking photos, as a Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter arrived soon afterward and dropped a rescue swimmer near the fish container.

“This case owes its success to cooperation with our partner search-and-rescue agencies, as well as the good Samaritan crew,” Vince Grochowski, a SAR operator with Coast Guard Sector Juneau, said in a statement. “In a challenging environment like Alaska’s, teamwork is the key to everyone getting home safely.”

Harris had only minor injuries when he was rescued.

“Forty-three seconds. That’s how quickly the Coast Guard has the basket down to the water, the man fastened in, and back into the helicopter,” wrote Aadsen. “They hoist the rescue swimmer back up next, and the helo rises.”

Harris fared well for his 26 hours adrift, requiring treatment only for blisters on his hands and a cut above one eye. There might not be many ways to remain alive when your boat sinks, but a fish tote saved the day in this instance.

November 2012 issue