Book retells tales of narrow escapes

Action on the high seas

Posted: Wednesday, November 21, 2001

Spike Walker's new book, "Coming Back Alive," is the perfect remedy for a case of separation anxiety brought on by fishing gear stored for the winter and a boat sitting safely high and dry.

Splashing from the page like the ice-forming ocean spray he describes, Walker's powerfully intense prose makes it impossible to set the book aside once the cover is cracked open.

Against a backdrop of churning water and screaming winds, he gives detailed accounts of the weather-induced beatings sustained by U.S. Coast Guard rescue crews and the love-hate relationship Alaskans have with the fickle salty depths from which they make a living.

Drawing on extensive research and detailed interviews, Walker chronicles three unimaginable heroic efforts to drag unlucky fishers from the ocean's greedy, life-snatching grasp.

Intimate glimpses into the lives of the real-life leading characters, reinforced by the old Coast Guard saying, "You have to go out, but you don't necessarily have to come back," is the framework upon which "Coming Back Alive" securely hangs. The details Walker provides of these individuals' families, dreams and struggles create a worthy defense against the terrors they endure.

In the opening pages, Skip Holden is enjoying a quiet afternoon in 1981, aboard the F/V Marlene, Holden's 26-foot gillnetter. The California transplant was comfortably at ease fishing outside the Copper River Flats. But that day, a storm, the likes of which Holden had never seen, barred his passage to safe harbor. Losing its steering and swallowing seawater, even the Marlene seemed set against him.

Surrounded by darkness, Holden faced "one of the most formidable storms in the history of storm-ravaged Prince William Sound."

Finally, with a U.S. Coast Guard C-130 high above, a rescue team struggled to maneuver their helicopter into position, buffeted relentlessly by shrieking 90 mph winds.

"One second, it was holding its own; the next, it went shooting back off the Marlene's stern as if shot out of a cannon."

But that sight paled compared to what happened next, leaving Holden more alone than he had ever been, his screams lost to the raging storm.

In December 1986, Jim Blades and his 6-year-old son, Clint, were securely anchored for the night not far from Sitka. Suddenly, winds gusting to 70 mph morphed the sea into an untamable beast.

After a rock ripped a hole in the 26-foot F/V Bluebird, the boat began a slow, but certain descent to the ocean's floor. Before becoming engulfed in the rising water, Blades called for help over his radio mike.

Responding from Sitka, a five-member Coast Guard team boarded an HH-3F Pelican helicopter and launched into the winter darkness and blowing snow, searching for the father and son.

Fighting to hold the helicopter on target, pilot John Whiddon played the chopper's floodlight on Jim and Clint. As their boat disappeared beneath the waves, the man and child struggled into survival suits, clipped themselves together and stepped into the roiling water.

Rescue swimmer Jeff Tunks became the crucial link in the events that followed.

"Now Tunks took in the panoramic scene 100 or so feet below him and saw precisely what he was 'fixin' to get into.'"

With the Marlene and the Bluebird providing a foundation and Walker's years of commercial fishing experience offering valuable insights, the author turns his attention to "the most harrowing search and rescue mission ever attempted on Alaska's high seas."

Amid 100 mph winds that exploded across the infamous Fairweather Ground and seas that reached staggering heights of 90 feet before crashing over on themselves, the La Conte, a 200,000-pound fishing boat, lost its struggle to stay on the surface.

Stripped of their life raft, the five crewmen found themselves staring into the face of death, tumbled by the relentless onslaught of towering waves and fighting to throw off the brain-numbing effects of hypothermia.

One, two, three helicopters appeared in turn, the rescue crews cashing in their experiences in search of some way to outsmart the record-breaking storm.

Finally, flight mechanic Fred Kalt saw a blur in the lowered rescue basket. With the basket "dangling beneath the helo on the end of the 150-foot length of cable," Kalt began drawing it and its cargo toward the chopper's open door. But the basket adamantly refused to slide into the aircraft. Rescue swimmer Mike Fish hurried to assist.

"Mike Fish couldn't grasp why the basket wouldn't slide right in as it always did. As he peered down near his crewmate's feet, he spotted the hooded head and drenched white face of a man clinging to the outside of the rescue basket. His hands and arms were actually draped inside the far side of the litter. He was straining desperately to hold on ... ."

In a straightforward, unflinching manner well suited to the events he relates, Spike Walker never backs away from the details in "Coming Back Alive." He rises to the challenge much the same as the people he describes.

And by the last page, even the saltiest and most-seasoned sailor is likely to appreciatively kiss the ground and shout, along with one of Walker's rescued fishers, "Thank you, God."

Walker has written two other books, "Working on the Edge" and "Nights of Ice." All three are published by St. Martin's Press.

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