Coming back from Sunshine Point to Homer about 3 p.m. last Friday, something told Jack Porter to keep an eye on a little 17-foot cabin cruiser working through 4- to 6-foot seas behind him.
That hunch helped to save three men when their boat rolled about 3 miles southwest of the Homer Spit 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 the fact 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, due to arrive about 4 p.m. in Homer from Anchorage. He saw Hediger’s boat moving slowly about 300 yards behind him.
“I kept thinking I was supposed to keep an eye on them,” Porter said. “The seas were picking up pretty good.”
Porter checked back every 30 seconds, he said. When he lost sight of Hediger’s boat, Porter turned around. He saw a bright spot on top of a wave that turned out to be the capsized fiberglass boat, a classic 1960s-era Dorsett cruiser with a low cabin. Porter told his Bonnie to call 911.
Hediger said he had been quartering with the waves behind him, 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 got on top of the boat, with Cuffe hanging on to the 40 hp outboard Mercury engine. Adam kept trying to stay on the boat, but waves pushed him back. Keith clung with his good arm to the engine and tried to keep his son out of the water.
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,” he said. “Don’t lose heat and stay calm.”
Cuffe’s bag with a VHF radio 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 steep waves and gunnels high above the water, 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.
Porter got into the Barnacle with Pedersen. With its lower gunnels, the two of them pulled the men into the Barnacle.
“There was no way I could have gotten those people out by myself,” Porter said.
Adam Hediger had swallowed sea water, so Keith Hediger told Porter to take his son first, followed by Cuffe and then him. By then, the Alaska Wildlife Trooper P/V Augustine had responded and escorted the boats back to the Homer Harbor.
“The part that really made me cry, I was thinking they were going too fast in the harbor,” Keith Hediger said. “It was heartwarming. God, I knew I was going to get saved at that point.”
Homer Volunteer Fire Department medics met the boat at the load and launch ramp. They put Adam Hediger in one ambulance and Keith Hediger and Cuffe in another ambulance. Medics cut Keith’s clothes off and put blankets and hot air blowers on him.
“When that happened, I realized I was cold,” Hediger said.
At the hospital when troopers interviewed him, Hediger said he had trouble understanding. He said his body temperature got down to 94 degrees and his son’s down to 92 degrees.
“My brain turned to mush. I was having trouble thinking about the words coming into my brain,” Hediger 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 fishermen on the Savannah Dawn rig a towline to the Lucy K and bring it into the harbor. Hediger said a salvage company got the boat out of the water and it’s being repaired.
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.”