The Coast Guard praised five boaters who were rescued this spring after their 60-foot motoryacht sank in the Gulf of Alaska, saying the crew was well-prepared for the emergency and the conditions.
Tom Alexander, 54, and the crew of the Nordic Mistress, a 1998 Bayliner, took all of the proper steps to help the Coast Guard complete a textbook rescue, says Petty Officer Jonathan Lally, public affairs specialist. The boat was outfitted with two VHF radios, a life raft, two rescue beacons, flares and survival suits.
Alexander used his VHF radio to give the Coast Guard his coordinates, Lally says, and once the helicopter was at the scene the boaters set off a flare that led to the rescue of the five-person crew, all of whom are from Anchorage. “They knew how to use the flare, and they knew how to get into their survival suits and get into the life raft. All of this helped the rescue go as smoothly as it did,” Lally says.
They had triggered an EPIRB and a personal locator beacon, but neither were needed for the rescue, Lally says.
Nordic Mistress was about 85 miles north of Kodiak in 20-knot winds and 10-foot seas May 22 when the boat became hard to steer, says Alexander, a semiretired commercial real estate agent who purchased the Bayliner 5788 in 2005. Alexander, whose 14-year-old son, Jacob, was on board, was taking the Bayliner from Kodiak to Whittier for the summer, a 260-mile trip he has made 30 times.
“We use it mostly for sportfishing,” he says. “I’ve been through a lot worse with the boat. It wasn’t the big seas that sunk her; it was a mechanical failure in the engine room that sent her to the bottom of the Gulf of Alaska.”
The other three crewmembers were Brian Broderick, 46, a real estate agent — Alexander’s first mate and best friend — and two other friends, Charles Blalock, 52, a real estate agent, and James Sims, 60, a home inspector.
The Nordic Mistress sank in about 45 minutes, says Alexander, who believes a shaft seal or through-hull might have failed. “The boat has dripless shaft bearings and there’s a big coupler,” he says. “That [coupler] must have cut loose, and if it does cut loose, water comes in fast.”
The Coast Guard is investigating to determine the cause of the accident, Lally says.
As the steering became more sluggish, Alexander sent Broderick to check for problems in the engine room. He reported that it was flooded. Alexander acted without hesitation and radioed the mayday. The Coast Guard initially wanted to drop pumps and life rafts. “I said … ‘I need that helicopter out of Kodiak!’ I said, ‘This boat is going down. I need a chopper!’ ”
The Coast Guard’s Lt. Jon Bartel says the Nordic Mistress crew did everything right, from the time trouble hit until they were rescued. “They were in a raft, No. 1,” says Bartel, a co-pilot of the MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter that responded. “They were all in gumby [survival] suits, which was great. They also had EPIRBs. They shot off flares like they were supposed to so we could see where they were once we got close. We got in there and hoisted them all out of the water with a basket. Our rescue swimmer did a great job.”
Alexander says Broderick played a crucial role in preparation for abandoning ship. “Brian was the real hero,” says Alexander, who has been boating in Alaska for 30 years and holds a 100-ton master’s license. “He was helping with the survival suits, keeping everybody calm. I was still up at the helm, keeping the boat into the swells because if I didn’t it would have capsized.”
Broderick also activated the EPIRB and the PLB and cut loose and launched the life raft. “As the boat was listing to the port side and the stern was going down, I threw the raft overboard,” says Broderick.
The trip to the engine room proved to be his most dangerous duty because he was out of sight of the others. “That was probably the hardest part, making it to the aft deck, because the waves were stacked pretty good,” says Broderick, an outdoorsman and marathon runner. “And if I disappeared off that aft deck, no one would ever find me.”Alexander had left the wheelhouse earlier in the ordeal to look at the inverter control panel, leaving Broderick at the helm. “At about that time I think we hit the biggest wave,” Alexander says. “As the boat dropped into the trough, I became airborne. I thought I broke my back. I didn’t know if I was going to get up. I literally had to crawl back into the wheelhouse.” As it turns out, Alexander had ruptured a disc in his back.
Broderick is an experienced boater, but Alexander believed he needed to be at the helm of his own boat in such dire circumstances. The steering continued to lose responsiveness. “I knew something wasn’t right. I know this boat like the back of my hand,” Alexander says. “I was noticing that when we hit a swell and rolled it was taking longer than normal to correct.”
The Nordic Mistress came close to capsizing. “That was the only time out of this ordeal I felt my heart skip a beat,” he says. “We rolled to port and she just stood there. When that happens, you don’t know if you’re going to roll over or right.”
By the time the crew was ready to jump into the life raft, the steering system was useless and Alexander was forced to use the throttles to control the vessel. “I’ve got the VHF microphone in one hand and [I’m] steering with the throttles with the other hand, so I’m pretty busy,” he says.
When Alexander abandoned the boat, only the bow was still above water. “All I had to do was step into the water,” he says.
It took the helicopter 45 minutes to reach Nordic Mistress, and by then crew was no longer in the area of the coordinates Alexander had relayed to the Coast Guard. Rescuers were just about to use the EPIRB signal to find them when they saw a flare, Lally says.
Rescue swimmer Ralph Aguero climbed into the life raft to explain the procedure for the helicopter pickup. “They were on edge, but surprisingly calm,” Aguero says.
The successful mission was particularly satisfying for Aguero, a 25-year-old petty officer, because he had recently responded to an accident in which five commercial clammers died after their overloaded boat capsized. “It was the first time I saw anything like that, as far as people perishing,” he says.
The Nordic Mistress rescue came less than a week later. “I was just happy to be able to assist and get those people to a safe place,” Aguero says.
Aguero also commended the Nordic Mistress crew. “As soon as they started to sink, they knew exactly what to do,” he says. “They donned their survival suits, which is huge up in Alaska. Your survivability increases greatly. They had all of their equipment ready to go.”
Alexander had spent several days preparing for the trip. He changed the impellers and the air and fuel filters on the MAN diesels, had the props worked on, changed the trim tabs, checked the bilge pumps and replaced some anchor chain. “It was a highly maintained boat,” says Alexander, who had the flybridge fully enclosed.
Before they departed, Alexander called the crew into the wheelhouse to hold a safety meeting. “The safety briefing the night before we departed — where everyone tried on their survival suits, talked about how to deploy the emergency raft, learned how to activate the EPIRB and how to send a mayday — probably made a huge difference in the outcome,” Alexander says.
Broderick says the skipper prohibited alcohol consumption during the passage — another smart move.
Some of Alexander’s friends who work as commercial fishermen have been victims of Alaskan waters. “When you know those people and you’re involved with a community that gets up every day and takes a risk and goes out for king crab, you just know it can happen,” Alexander says. “Do you ever think it will? No. But the only way you’re going to live if it happens is to have your [safety] gear there and have your stuff together. You jump in the Gulf of Alaska without a survival suit, you’re probably going to die. The water is so cold that it sucks the breath right out of you instantly.”
SAFETY GEAR ON MOTORYACHT
• Self-inflating Zodiac life raft strapped down on deck just outside the wheelhouse
• Six survival suits stowed in the wheelhouse
• EPIRB registered to Tom Alexander mounted to the wheelhouse superstructure, above the life raft
• PLB registered to Alexander attached to the life raft
• Ditch bag containing flares stowed in the life raft
• Two fixed-mount ICOM VHF radios in the wheelhouse linked to GPS
• One handheld VHF
STEPS THE CREW TOOK
• Safety meeting held before departure; crew taught how to operate VHF radio and broadcast a mayday, put on survival suits and inflate the life raft
• Immediately hailed Coast Guard on VHF with coordinates
• Set off readily available EPIRB and PLB
• Put on readily available survival suits
This article originally appeared in the August 2011 issue.