Coming back from Sunshine Point to Homer about 3 p.m. last Friday, something told Jack Porter to keep an eye on a 17-foot boat working through 4- to 6-foot seas behind him. That hunch proved unfortunately true, but it saved three men when their boat rolled and Porter turned back to check on them. Keith Hediger, 60, Adam Hediger, 26, and Mike Cuffe, 64, survived thanks to Porter's watchful eye -- and that they all wore personal floatation devices.
"People at the hospital, the medics, the people in the boats that helped us -- they all contributed to saving our lives, but mostly the PFDs and Jack Porter," Keith Hediger, a Homer chiropractor and owner of the 17-foot Lucy K, said Monday. "I got to put him (Porter) at the top of the list."
Keith Hediger wrenched his shoulder when the boat flipped, and all three men suffered hypothermia after being in the water about 30 minutes. Adam Hediger also had an irregular heart beat. All three men were treated at South Peninsula Hospital and released.
Porter, 66, who lives at Sunshine Point, also known as Anisim Point at the north end of Eldred Passage, left with his wife Bonnie in their 22-foot aluminum open dory to pick up his sister, running late and due to arrive about 4 p.m. in Homer from Anchorage. He saw Hediger's boat about 300 yards behind him and moving slower.
"I kept thinking I was supposed to keep an eye on them," Porter said. "The seas were picking up pretty good, but the waves were catching me on my aft port quarter which was helping me move along pretty good."
Porter kept checking back every 30 seconds, he said. When he lost sight of Hediger's boat, Porter turned around, heading into 6-foot seas on his forward starboard quarter. He saw a bright spot on top of a wave that turned out to be the capsized fiberglass boat, a classic Dorsett cruiser with a low cabin. Porter told his wife, Bonnie, to call 911.
Hediger said he had been quartering into the swells, riding the crest of the wave, when the boat's stern slid down into the trough.
"The top of the wave came and hit my port side," Hediger said. "I was instantly upside down."
Adam Hediger got thrown about 12 feet. Cuffe, sitting in the stern, came out the back. Keith Hediger went under the boat but got out. Adam swam back to the boat, but then his PFD got caught on a cleat, and Keith had to go underwater twice to untangle his son. All three men eventually got on top of the boat, with Cuffe hanging on to the 40 hp outboard Mercury engine. Adam kept trying to stay on the overturned boat, but waves pushed him back. Keith clung with his good arm to the engine and tried to keep his son on the overturned boat.
Keith Hediger took the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary safe boating class last winter and remembered what he learned, he said.
"Don't panic. Don't burn calories. Get in the fetal crawl position, keep elbows tight to your chest, don't lose heat and stay calm," he said.
Unfortunately, Cuffe's bag with a VHF radio had floated away. Hediger said he couldn't swim after it and worried that there would be no way to call for help.
And then he saw the Porters pull up.
"When I saw that other boat with the man and the lady and the ladder on the starboard side, I knew it was OK," Hediger said.
Porter said he tried to get close to the men in the water. With the high waves slamming his bow down, Porter couldn't pick up the men safely. He saw two other boats about a quarter-mile away. Yelling to the men that he would be back -- Hediger said he couldn't hear him -- Porter went to get help. He came back with Hans Pedersen in a Boston Whaler, the Barnacle, a research boat with the University of Alaska Fairbanks out of the Kasitsna Bay Laboratory. Mike Geagel in the Elma Jay, a larger boat, followed.
The Barnacle had lower gunnels, so Porter got into it with Pedersen. Between the two of them they got the men into the Barnacle.
"There was no way I could have gotten those people out by myself," Porter said.
Mariners spotted Hediger's boat on Saturday floating off Peterson Bay. Dave Lyon, of Ashore Water Taxi in the Blackfish, and Lance Haggerty of the Mulligan with Mako's Water Taxi, helped crew on the Savannah Dawn rig a towline to the boat and bring it into the harbor. Hediger said a salvage company got the boat out of the water and it's being repaired.
Harbormaster Bryan Hawkins and Jeff Johnson, the Alaska Boat Administrator with the Office of Boating Safety, said the Hedigers and Cuffe absolutely did the right thing wearing PFDs. The Office of Boating Safety has been urging mariners, especially men, to participate in the Pledge to Live program, signing pledges to always wear PFDs. The only suggestions Hawkins made were to wait for better weather and to wear safety gear like signal flares and a VHF radio on PFDs.
Johnson said five out of six boating fatalities come from boats that capsize or people who fall overboard. Nine out of 10 fatalities are adult males. Only 13 percent of adults in power boats wear PFDs, Johnson said.
Hawkins said that for Father's Day this Sunday, as part of the Pledge to Live campaign, his church is asking fathers to pledge to wear PFDs.
"The best Father's Day gift is to buy an adult male in your family a life jacket in his choice," Johnson said. "And attach a pledge card to it."
After his ordeal, Keith Hediger said he's reminded of what John Wayne said: "Every day you're above ground is a good one."
"Let's add water to that," he said.
Porter said he had been perturbed at his sister for running late, but that put him in the right time and place to look out for Hediger's boat.
"If I had not been directed to keep watch on the boat behind me, those people would not have made it," Porter said. "No one other than me knew that anything had happened to the boat and would not have known to even look for them. God used me to save three lives."
For information on the Office of Boating Safety Pledge to Live campaign, visit www.pledgetolive.org.
Michael Armstrong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.