Lifting fog, charter Cpt. Chad Kiesel’s curiosity and the sheer luck it took for these things to coincide saved a father and son after their boat capsized in Cook Inlet on Friday afternoon in an accident that claimed the life of another onboard.
Kiesel, skipper of the Silver Fox 1 with Silver Fox Charters out of Homer, was taking six clients in search of a barn-door halibut to round out their day of fishing when he saw something on the horizon.
“I saw what looked at first like a big tree floating in the water. I didn’t know what it was and we see a lot of them so we don’t pay too much attention to them,” Kiesel said Saturday.
When the spot moved he changed his assessment from driftwood to sea kayakers.
Still, that didn’t seem quite right. Too far from shore, he thought, and the day’s big tides would make kayaking dangerous. He decided to take a closer look so he headed to a spot he estimated as three miles offshore, about 23 or 24 miles from Homer a spot the Coast Guard pegged as being off Dangerous Cape northeast of Port Graham.
“As we got closer I still couldn’t quite make it out what it was,” Kiesel said. “It turned out to be two men straddling the top of the bow of a capsized boat.
“They looked really cold. They were wet. We asked them how long they’d been sitting on top of their boat and they said half an hour.”
Kiesel’s first reaction was to get the men Mike and Charles Speece, father and son from Washington aboard the Silver Fox 1 and into dry clothes, until they told him someone was still in the boat.
“I was like, ‘Is there air underneath the boat? Do you think he’s alive?’”
“He” was their uncle, Gene Speece, 75, who became trapped under the 16-foot, tri-hull boat when it capsized.
The men stayed calm but were not completely coherent, Kiesel said. From what Kiesel pieced together it seems the men had tried anchoring the boat off the bow but had a problem with the line. It either broke or they decided for some reason to cleat the anchor line on the side of the boat a bad idea in Cook Inlet, especially on a day with big tides.
Kiesel estimated the current was moving at 3.5 knots. He figures the anchor line was pulled tight against the side of the boat and sucked it down into the waves. Water rushed in, the boat capsized and the anchor line snapped, setting the craft adrift.
Kiesel said the men told him that the time between the boat tipping and capsizing went so fast they didn’t have time to radio for help, much less put on life jackets.
The elder Speece told Kiesel he was pushed 20 feet from the boat when it capsized. He swam back and heard his son underneath the hull. He yelled at his son to crawl out through the open front windshield.
Four or five minutes later the son emerged, but said he thought Gene Speece was dead.
“He said his uncle stopped moving,” Kiesel said. “He checked on his uncle and said it looked like he was dead.”
Kiesel said he pulled his boat up next to the submerged boat’s bow, which was the only part still above water.
“We were pounding on the hull and yelling to see if we could hear any signs of life from under the boat,” he said. “We couldn’t hear anything. At that point it was about 40 minutes. ... I was pretty confident at that point, if we weren’t getting any sounds of life at that point, that he wasn’t alive.”
Kiesel had called the Coast Guard at 1:43 p.m., as soon as he realized he’d be undertaking a rescue mission instead of urging wayward kayakers to head back to shore. According to a Coast Guard press release, a Jayhawk helicopter from Air Station Kodiak was dispatched with a rescue swimmer. At about 2:45 p.m. the swimmer retrieved Speece and hoisted him into the Jayhawk, but he was unconscious and not breathing. Attempts at resuscitation were performed aboard the helicopter while en route to South Peninsula Hospital in Homer, but Speece was pronounced dead upon arrival.
Kiesel took Mike and Charles Speece back to Homer. His clients, including two teenagers under 16, did what they could to comfort the men.
“Everyone handled it pretty well. Nobody panicked,” Kiesel said. “Everyone kept their cool, gave up their clothing to the two people who were wet. Everyone was really helpful offering them water and anything they had on them to comfort them. They did a great job.”
The Speeces were soaking wet and seemed to be in shock, but otherwise OK, Kiesel said.
“All in all they kept it together,” he said. “They didn’t get hysterical or anything on me. Emotionally they kept it together. They were just extremely happy when I found them. They couldn’t stop smiling. They were afraid no one would see them. They knew that no one knew they were in that situation. They didn’t have time to make a Mayday call.”
Kiesel said luck played the biggest role in the rescue. The day had been foggy, and the fog just happened to lift as he was driving past the distressed boat.
“They got so lucky in the fact that the weather was foggy and they’re so low in the water that they didn’t really look like much on the horizon, just a dark spot,” he said.
As for why the accident happened in the first place, the 27-year-old Kiesel, who’s been a charter captain for seven years and has fished in lower Cook Inlet since he was a kid, chalked it up to inexperience.
“The lack of knowledge they had for the area and lack of respect they had for Cook Inlet and the tides we’ve got here,” he said. “It was preventable, and that’s what hurts.”
“This kind of event has happened several times in my lifespan of fishing in Cook Inlet,” he said, adding that he wants to remind people to never tie an anchor anywhere but the bow of a boat.
“It’s always cheaper to cut your anchor line and replace your anchor than to replace lives and your boat.”
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