Boaters survive Kachemak plunge

Posted: Sunday, March 30, 2008

HOMER It was one of those late winter days with a hint of spring that makes Alaskans hungry to be outdoors and on the water. In less than a minute, all that changed for Ryan Skorecki of Girdwood and three friends Bobbie Mumm, Jessica Cheatwood and Kristian Sieling who were returning to Homer after a weekend in Bear Cove.

The foursome was crossing Kachemak Bay March 16, aboard a 20-foot johnboat an aluminum, flat-bottomed vessel when a wave broke over the bow, filled the boat with water, caused it to capsize and sent the four and their dog into the 38-degree water.

"I glanced over to shore and thought, 'We're dead.' There was no chance of us swimming to that shore. We were pretty much in the middle of the bay," Skorecki said.

However, built-in flotation managed to keep the overturned boat's bow above the water's surface and offered enough buoyancy for the foursome, all wearing lifejackets, to pull themselves and the dog mostly out of the water.

Taking stock of their situation, they knew the tide was going out, which would carry them closer to the Spit. What they lacked was a way to summon help. Exposure to salt water destroyed the group's cell phones. A marine radio also quit working. The frigid water made it impossible to retrieve a cell phone in a dry bag trapped under the boat, as well as a container of flares under the hull.

Using the metal faceplate of a cell phone and knife blade, the four attempted to signal for help. They also blew whistles, but eventually realized that was a useless expense of energy.

In an attempt to minimize exposure to the cold water, Skorecki, Mumm, Cheatwood and Sieling took turns kneeling on the upturned bow with one of the three standing for short periods of time.

"If we sat, our butts were constantly wet. If we were kneeling, for half the time we were out of the water," Skorecki said.

Meanwhile, charter operator Kent Haina, owner of Poi Boy Fishing, was taking his 32-foot Bayweld for a shakedown cruise.

With him were his wife, Kari, and his 9-year-old stepdaughter, Kira.

"We putted out of the harbor, trying to decide whether to go to the right or up the bay. It looked smoother up in the bay, so we went that way. It was just sheer luck," Haina said.

As he put his boat through a pre-fishing season evaluation, Haina noticed in the distance what appeared to be a low profile boat, possibly an inflatable with people fishing.

"I cross-checked their position with my GPS, and they were right on top of one of my fishing holes," Haina said.

Immediately alerting the Coast Guard of the situation, Haina, his wife and stepdaughter helped the four individuals and the dog aboard Haina's boat.

By then, it had been three hours since the johnboat had capsized.

Marking the overturned vessel with a buoy so it could later be retrieved, Haina transported the very cold, but otherwise OK Skorecki, Mumm, Cheatwood and Sieling back to the Homer.

More than a week later, the near-tragedy still shakes Haina, reminding him of the importance of safety systems.

"I've spoken to three of them since the incident and told them I don't know if they believe in God, Maroni, Darwin or fate, but something put the seven of us in that same spot on this planet at the same time. I don't know what the reason is and may never know, but basically it was not their time to go or we'd not have been there," Haina said.

Having served eight years in the military and 17 years flying for American Airlines "managing chaos," Haina recognizes the need for safety equipment. He also is a firm believer in the need to have signaling devices at hand, especially floating smoke signals.

"I never realized how important a day signal was until that incident," he said.

As commercial pilot, Skorecki said there are precautions he always takes before flying.

"What upset me is that I didn't apply those same rules to myself for a boat trip," he said, using a float plan as an example.

Although he and his friends filed one with the harbormaster, they didn't take time to call before leaving Bear Cove.

"There's no reason why we didn't call and say we were leaving and would be there in 45 minutes, or call any of our friends and say if we hadn't called within an hour something was wrong," he said. "That would have made a three-hour ordeal maybe a half hour."

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