Bellingham fishers helped rescue man adrift 26 hours in Alaska

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDOctober 7, 2012 

In U.S. Coast Guard parlance, a "good Samaritan fishing vessel crew" found 19-year-old Ryan Harris afloat in a plastic fish tote in the open seas after his boat capsized northwest of Sitka, Alaska.

In people talk, that means a Bellingham fishing couple, Tele Aadsen and Joel Brady-Power, may very well have saved the young man's life.

Harris might have survived anyway, considering he was in surprisingly good shape after floating in the tote for 26 hours with a jacket and fishing pants but no survival suit. Then again ...

"It sure felt like a big ocean," Tele said.

A Fairhaven College graduate who turned 35 today, Oct. 7, she and Joel, 30, have spent their lives divided between Southeast Alaska and Whatcom and Skagit counties. They knew each other as fishing-family kids growing up in Sitka's harbor, but didn't become a couple until 2004.

They've been running the Nerka, a 43-foot salmon-fishing boat built for Joel's parents, for the past seven seasons, and bought a house in Bellingham three years ago.

In the off season, he works to build his business as a landscape photographer and she works on her writing. Tele hopes to publish a fishing memoir, and created a blog, "Hooked: One Woman at Sea, Trolling for Truth," to focus her effort.

Her Sept. 11 blog post describes the search for the missing man, and his rescue, in powerful, moving detail.

Facing strong winds and high waves, Tele and Joel anchored the Nerka early Sept. 7, a Friday, in a bay on the west coast of Kruzof Island, west of Sitka. The winds died down that night, so they slept through a late-night Coast Guard alert about a boat reported missing.

The 28-foot aluminum boat with Harris and a crewmate had capsized Friday afternoon near the south end of Kruzof Island. They had no radio or cell phone, but friends reported them missing Friday night after they failed to return to port.

By Saturday morning, Tele and Joel, and other boaters in the area, heard reports about the missing fishers.

"Fishermen are never a stronger community than in situations like this," Tele wrote in her blog. "When tragedy cuts one of us down, we all bleed."

Shortly before 1 p.m. Saturday, a search vessel found Harris' crewmate alive on a beach. The crewmate had managed to don a survival suit after hitting the water.

Harris didn't have a survival suit, but was wearing a float coat, a warm jacket with buoyancy. At one point, according to news reports, he tipped into the water, but managed to right the tote and stay afloat. To stay awake and upbeat, he sang "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Row, Row, Row Your Boat."

Harris was still in the water Saturday afternoon when Tele and Joel decided to stop fishing. Because of rising winds, they opted for a longer but calmer route to Sitka around the north and east side of Kruzof Island, rather than face rough open waters around the south end.

They knew the Coast Guard was still looking for the second missing man, so they motored north with binoculars in hand, hoping to see him despite the poor visibility.

"We simultaneously gasp at a head bobbing towards us," Tele recounted in her blog. "It disappears under the surface, then slowly pops up for a closer look - a head of bull kelp."

About a half hour later, Joel Power called out, "There! What's that?" Sixty feet ahead to the left a blue tote listed in the water.

A moment later they both yell, "There's another one!" Several hundred yards ahead a second tote bobs upright. Inside, a man starts flapping his arms.

Joel immediately contacts the Coast Guard. Soon after, a Coast Guard helicopter appears. Forty-three seconds later, by Tele's count, Harris is safe, inside the copter.

"We were able to divert our helicopter that was out flying to hoist him out of the drink," explained Chief Petty Officer Kip Wadlow, a Coast Guard spokesman in Juneau.

Aboard the Nerka, Tele and Joel film the rescue, then prepare to head home.

"I stay on deck for a moment longer," Tele wrote in her blog. "Tears I wasn't aware of mingle with the rain on my cheeks. ... I wave to the helicopter, wishing again that body language translated. You guys are amazing. Thank you. Thank you."


MORE DETAILS ONLINE

• To read Tele Aadsen's blog, go to nerkasalmon.wordpress.com.

• To see video of the rescue shot from the Nerka, go to this blog post at alaskawaypoints.com/lost-sea-man-fish-tote.

• To see the video of rescue by helicopter, go to this Coast Guard webpage.

Reach DEAN KAHN at dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2291.

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