Fishing family spends 60 hours in life raft

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The four are rescued by a research vessel after their boat goes down in 47-degree water

The four are rescued by a research vessel after their boat goes down in 47-degree water

Wearing only a T-shirt and shorts, Dale Pruitt lay crammed in a life raft with three family members for more than two days early this summer after the fishing vessel he had leased sank in the cold waters of Shelikof Strait, between the Alaskan peninsula and Kodiak Island. Pruitt was borderline hypothermic, he says, but knew he had to try to stay positive for the teenagers.

“Was I scared? Yeah, I was scared, but I wasn’t going to let the kids see that,” says Pruitt, 47, in an interview with Soundings. “We had to keep positive. … I had to keep upbeat for them.”

After spending more than 60 hours in the raft, Pruitt and his family were rescued June 23 about 17 miles south of Halibut Bay by the crew of a NOAA-chartered research vessel. “That was a happy moment for all of us,” Pruitt says. “We’re all very grateful.”

A commercial fisherman for more than three decades, Pruitt leased the 56-foot steel seiner Magnum for two days of fishing off Kodiak Island. For crew, he took his 18-year-old son Mitchell, 15-year-old daughter Calista, and 18-year-old niece Cally. The four set off from Kodiak Monday, June 18, and began fishing the next day off CapeIgvak on the Alaskan peninsula near WideBay.

By 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, they had hauled about 10,000 pounds of red salmon. Pruitt called his wife, Mindy, to tell her they were heading home. He says winds were between 20 and 25 knots and seas 5 feet. Pruitt expected to be back at KodiakHarbor no later than 4 p.m. the following afternoon.

Over the next 1-1/2 hours, as Magnum pushed through Shelikof Straight toward Jute Bay, winds built to 60 knots and seas grew to 15 feet, Pruitt says. Having never fished aboard Magnum before, he decided to head to shore to wait out the storm. He says that’s when he noticed Magnum was listing to starboard and “wasn’t snapping back like it should.” He thought the boat was going to sink. He woke his crew and told them to get into their survival suits.

“I was screaming a lot when I realized what was going on,” says Pruitt’s daughter, Calista. “I didn’t know what to do or where to go.”

In the cabin, Calista spotted a flashing red light. “She said, ‘What’s that light?’” Pruitt recalls. “The light was on, the alarm wasn’t going, so I kind of knew it was the lazarette light, which probably meant there was water in it.”

Pruitt grabbed the VHF to radio a mayday when a wave hit Magnum’s starboard side, washing his niece overboard. Pruitt launched Magnum’s metal skiff, but it capsized as the big steel seiner dipped below the surface. With the crew in what Pruitt says was 47-degree water, the group managed to swim about 100 yards to Cally, who happened to be near Magnum’s six-person life raft. Pruitt, who wasn’t wearing a survival suit, inflated the raft, and everyone climbed inside. “My son had to kind of help me in,” Pruitt admits. “By that time I was pretty darn cold.”

For hours the four huddled in the raft wondering when the storm would pass and they might be rescued. “We had our thoughts to ourselves, but I wouldn’t let ... negative thoughts come into us,” Pruitt says. “I remember the kids wanted to give their mom a hug. I wanted to give their mom a hug, too. They wanted to know when the Coast Guard would be there. I thought the Coast Guard would be there fairly soon because of that EPIRB. But after the first 12 hours I was kind of concerned.”

The Coast Guard never received a distress signal from Magnum, says agency spokesperson Kurt Fredrickson. It wasn’t until late Friday evening, June 22, when Pruitt’s family reported Magnum more than 24 hours overdue. The Coast Guard launched an HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter and an HC-130 Hercules aircraft from Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak. It also made a broadcast to ask others in the area to look for the Magnum and its crew. “Because we didn’t have a definite location of where the Magnum may have gone down, we basically searched the entire Shelikof Strait two times over to include all the bays and inlets on both sides — that being Kodiak and the Alaskan peninsula side,” Fredrickson says.

During the first 36 hours after Magnum sank, the Pruitts collected rainwater in the raft’s rain flap, told each other stories, and tried to stay warm. When the weather cleared Friday, Pruitt estimates the raft had drifted to within 20 miles of Kodiak Island. The group began paddling for land. “It helped morale, just getting them to do something,” Pruitt says.

But within five hours the sky turned overcast, and the group lost sight of the island. “There were tears,” says Pruitt. “They wanted to go home. I can’t blame them. I said, ‘We gotta stay tough. Eventually somebody’s going to get us.’ ”

The first sign of rescue came Friday night, when the group heard planes overhead. Pruitt shot off two or three flares but says they weren’t seen. Finally, at about 10 a.m. Saturday, Pruitt heard a sound he immediately recognized. “I heard engine noise,” he says. “I knew it wasn’t a plane. It wasn’t the same sound. Then I heard voices.”

Pruitt opened the flap and saw Sea Storm, a NOAA-chartered research vessel. The crew pulled alongside the life raft and lowered a rope ladder. One by one the cold, tired crew of Magnum climbed aboard. “We were thrilled to see them,” says Pruitt.

Sea Storm arrived in KodiakHarbor at about 10:30 p.m., Saturday, June 23. About 100 of Pruitt’s friends and family were waiting on the docks. “It was kind of a cool thing there,” Pruitt says. “There were lots of hugs, kisses and pictures.”

Although it wasn’t immediately clear why Magnum sank, or why the EPIRB failed to transmit, Coast Guard spokesperson Fredrickson says it was crucial to their rescue that Pruitt called his wife to say they were headed home. “The most important thing that happened with this is that someone recognized that [the Pruitts] were overdue,” he says. “What we ask people to do if they’re going out on a long trip [is] let someone know. When you don’t return, it at least gives us a starting point.”

Pruitt says he feels fortunate that they were found. “Like the skipper [of Sea Storm] said, this had a happy ending,” Pruitt says. “A lot of stories like this don’t have happy endings. He’s right, there.”

Log on to hear Dale Pruitt recount his story as part of the Ultimate Survivor series on Soundings’ Rescue Channel, www.TheRescueChannel.com .