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Alaskan survivor — a year later

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All he wanted to do was go home.

Commercial fisherman Alan Ryden was making his way back from Sand Point to his hometown of Kodiak, Alaska, when a gust of wind rolled his 42-foot salmon troller, the Pacific Lady. The boat sank, and Ryden spent the next 10-plus hours adrift - much of it in a life float.
"The season was over, and it was time to get home, so I was in a hurry," says Ryden. Ryden was staying about a mile offshore - on the Gulf of Alaska side of the Alaskan Peninsula - to shelter the Pacific Lady from 50-knot northwest winds as he began his 300-mile run home Nov. 14, 2007. The trouble began the next day, as he rounded Cape Providence.

The night Alan Ryden almost died

Ryden recalls in vivid detail the sinking, the ditching and waiting for rescue

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"All of a sudden, I came around the cape and things were different," says Ryden, who is now 49. "Near Port Wrangell - it's a long bay, and the wind was coming right down, and up until then I had been sheltered from the northwest wind."

Ryden, who has been fishing for 24 years, describes the Pacific Lady as a heavy wooden-hulled vessel built for offshore fishing. Together they had come through rough weather before, so Ryden was surprised when he realized he wasn't making headway.

"I could not make it uphill into this weather. I was bucking into this extreme wind," he recalls. "I turned the boat a little bit to port to go back around Cape Providence, and I tried that for a few minutes.

"All of a sudden, this sudden gust of wind ... pushed [Pacific Lady] over to a 40-degree rollover [to port] and held it there."

Into the water

Instinctively, Ryden tried turning back into the wind, though, in retrospect, he knew he should have fallen off and put the gale behind him. Instead, he took it on the beam, and the blast knocked the Pacific Lady over. "I remember seeing water pouring over the port rail," he says. "I just knew - I was thinking real clearly, not panicking or anything - that I was losing the boat."

Ryden believes that learning to operate your boat in heavy weather is one of the most important lessons any boater can learn.

Immediately after the rollover, the boat lost power. Ryden pulled on a fleece jacket and a survival suit. He got off a mayday call, but in the chaos of the situation he forgot to grab his waterproof hand-held VHF. "That would've been really nice to have," he says.

About a minute after the boat was knocked down, Ryden found himself struggling against a rush of water to get out of the wheelhouse. With the boat in 8- to 10-foot seas, he was able to escape out the aft galley door and scramble on top of the wheelhouse. That's when he reached for the life float. "It's just a buoyant tube ... and there's a net in the middle of it," says Ryden. "It's just a minimal thing that I had kind of as a backup."

While trying to get into the raft, Ryden failed to activate his EPIRB, which was just out of reach.

10 hours at sea

This life float kept Ryden alive for hours as he waited for rescue.

Ryden got into the small survival raft and pushed away from the Pacific Lady. It was his last sight of the boat before the seas carried him off, riding 10-foot waves in winds to 65 knots. Water temperatures that time of year average around 40 degrees, he says.

"I'm riding up and down these huge waves, and it was similar to 'The Perfect Storm,' " says Ryden. "My feet are hanging off the end of this raft, and I thought if I could just pull my feet into the raft, curl up in it, maybe I could catch a nap or something. And for a long time I really wanted to, but you're not supposed to do that because you're in a potential hypothermic state."

Ryden says he was rolled 12 to 15 times. "I remember the third or fourth time [the raft] got [torn] right out of my hand," he says. "I bobbed to the surface and saw it screaming down the wave. I mean, the wind was just taking it. And I thought, I either get that raft or I die right now." The fisherman swam as hard as he could and was able to grab one of the lines trailing off the raft.

Ryden believes it was around 9:30 p.m. when his fishing boat finally sank. That's when the Coast Guard picked up his EPIRB signal, according to its report. "The EPIRB has a hydrostatic release once it is under 2 meters of water," says Ryden. "I had been in the water about seven hours at this point."

Ryden finally spotted the Coast Guard C-130 in the night sky when it flew overhead. The C-130 saw Ryden, too -- or more to the point saw his ACR Firefly strobe.

"The Coast Guard told me, 'That strobe light saved your life, no doubt,' " says Ryden. "You can get a really good personal strobe for $80 to $100."

The C-130 crew sent flares down to help mark Ryden's position. They then dropped life rafts from 200 feet above; one miraculously landed next to him. (Ryden learned later that five of the seven crewmembers on the plane were ill because of the rough ride in the high winds.)

Low on fuel, the C-130 returned to base, but a helicopter arrived on scene while the fishing boat Heritage made its way to Ryden. The crew of the fishing boat threw the water-logged survivor a life ring and was able to pull him aboard as a wave swept Ryden onto the deck. "The guys grabbed my suit and slopped me on just like a big halibut," he recalls. "And all of sudden, I'm back in the real world."

It was about 1 a.m. Nov. 16, according to the Coast Guard report.

'You couldn't kill me'

Ryden was safe, but it would take another 12 hours in rough seas to reach Kodiak, he says. "I remember looking out at the ocean. We were almost home, and I remember looking at the sea and saying, 'Tried to kill me and you couldn't, eh?' "

Ryden says safety is a priority aboard his new boat, the Radiance, a 38-foot 1975 Mel Martin.

Ryden still fishes commercially. He bought a new boat in February 2008 - the Radiance, a 38-foot fiberglass vessel - and he says safety is his No. 1 priority.

"I don't really have nightmares about [the sinking], but I wake up regretting the things I did. I mean, I lost the boat," says Ryden. "I don't take chances anymore. I still have the same raft in the Radiance I spent 10 hours on. I thought about hanging it up in my garage and having the Coast Guard sign it, but it's a high-quality raft." Ryden carries flares, strobes, two survival suits, and an EPIRB, as well as a VHF radio. And these days, he keeps the EPIRB close to the cabin door within easy reach. "I learned my lesson," he says.

He also evaluates his systems on a regular basis to make sure everything is working properly.

"The ocean is too serious to let outside influences affect your view on the weather," Ryden says. "You have to listen to the radio and look out the window and make a sound decision."

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