Precipice of the Deep – The M/V Matanuska – Part 2
Article and Photographs by Captain Bill Hopkins, AMHS Retired
The following is a continuation of “Precipice of the Deep – Part 1.”
I pulled back the curtains to my stateroom window. Although it was just turning dark, I could see the myriad of stars and knew from the stilled fog whistle that the fog had dissipated. The M/V Matanuska had just passed the remote communities of Bella Bella and Waglisla. Gripping the hand crank to the bulkhead-mounted telephone, I turned it rapidly to call the wheelhouse.
Answering the loud ring quickly, the mate picked up the receiver to hear me say, “I’ll be in the officer’s mess room having dinner if you need to find me.”
“Roger that, Cap,” said the mate. “We’re just coming out of Lama Passage and entering into Seaforth Channel. We can see no fog ahead. We’ve secured the bow lookout and brought him to the wheelhouse, and the engines are no longer on standby.”
“That sounds good. I’m sure everyone gets tired of listening to our husky fog whistle.”
Readying myself for dinner, I descended the stairwell and walked aft to the officer’s mess room. My place at the captain’s table was set with placemat, silverware, coffee-cup, drinking glass. A lazy Susan filled the center of the table with condiments, and the menu. Stopping by the salad bar first, I picked through the makings and put together a salad. Then sitting down, I studied the entrée-filled menu: Teriyaki chicken wings, almond-crusted salmon or barbecue pork roast, including garlic-mashed potatoes. With a notepad in hand, a waiter stood by to receive my order.
“I’ll have the almond-crusted salmon and garlic-mashed potatoes, with a glass of cranberry juice,” I said with a smile.
The server took the order back to the galley and the waiting cook.
North wind and choppy seas continued unabated with lethal consistency. Water crept upward inside the skiff in an apparent losing battle. There was no delaying the inevitable. Herman’s efforts produced not even an engine belch. Despair overwhelmed Angeline. Reaching into her coat pocket, she felt the packet of matches she had placed there earlier. They would do no good in the middle of Milbanke Sound.
Other than the sound of the northerly wind, it was a quiet night. A choppy sea pelted the stern and water continued slopping over the low-cut transom filling the boat. No other vessels were in sight; their only companions were the multitude of stars, with the sweeping light of the Ivory Island Lighthouse on the southeastern horizon. With the temperature dropping ten degrees as soon as the sun had set, wind chill and cold soon overcame any sensations of warmth.
“If only we had a radio to call the lighthouse, or flares to be seen,” thought Angeline.
A sharp eye detects motion quickly. Herman, with his head down working on the engine, did not look up and scan the horizon. Angeline did, however, look around and scan the horizon with her sharp eyes. Angeline kept her thoughts to herself. “We’ll soon sink, and disappear from the face of the earth.”
Despairing, she looked around in the event that there may be a passing boat. These surveys had been an exercise in disappointment, but this time her eyes caught the motion of white lights exiting from Seaforth Channel into Milbanke Sound very near the Ivory Island Lighthouse. Unsure what it may be, she watched intently.
“Herman, I think I see a ship coming our way.”
Herman stopped his work for a moment and looked in the direction that Angeline had pointed. There, just passing the Ivory Island Lighthouse, were the masthead range lights of a large ship. A lower forward masthead light followed by a higher aft masthead light. A starboard side green sidelight became visible.
Indicating that the ship was turning, the range lights closed and then opened up again, but this time to reveal a port side red sidelight. The ship had changed course at Susan Rock proceeding northward toward the area of their drifting boat. Herman estimated that he and Angeline were still too far away to be noticed on a dark night as this.
In despair he said, “They’ll never see us.”
Thinking quickly, Angeline reached into her coat pocket and pulled out her box of dry matches. Taking off her jacket she said, “Herman, douse my jacket with some gasoline. I’ve some matches.”
Illuminating their small boat in a rotating glow, Angeline’s eyes flashed bright and intense, looking directly toward the M/V Matanuska.
Grasping the idea, Herman disconnected the gas line hose from the engine. Angeline, not wanting to walk aft in the nearly filled boat and upset its tender stability, tossed the jacket to Herman. Catching the flying jacket before it landed in the water, he hand-pumped the priming bulb and squeezed gasoline onto the jacket, soaking it well, but leaving a sleeve dry for Angeline to use as a torch handle.
Herman cautiously threw the gas soaked jacket toward the bow. Landing next to Angeline on the thwart, she picked it up and felt in the dark for the sleeve that was still dry. She waited until she thought the approaching ship was close enough to see her distress signal.
“I think they are close enough now,” she said to Herman.
Herman concurred saying, “Light up that coat, Angeline. We’ve not much time.”
Striking a match on the side of her matchbox with numb fingers was no easy task, but the match ignited immediately. She cupped the nascent flame in her cold hands to prevent the wind from blowing it out. Cautiously, she touched the small flicker to her jacket. It exploded into a fury of orange flame. Bravely, Angeline grabbed the dry sleeve and began to twirl the burning coat above her head.
“Hey! Over here! Can you see us?” she shouted into the dark night, as though expecting someone on the ship to hear her voice.
Several rapid twirls of the flaming jacket were made above Angeline’s head. Illuminating their small boat in a rotating glow, Angeline’s eyes flashed bright and intense, looking directly toward the M/V Matanuska. Her wind tossed hair trailed forward toward the open Pacific Ocean. Burning and melting, the jacket was quickly consumed, and with one last desperate twirl, Angeline let it fall into the sea before it burned her hand. Making no apparent reaction, the Matanuska continued with her northbound track.
“I’m not sure they’ve seen us,” she screamed.
Taking off her shirt, she tossed it to Herman. It was all or nothing, life or death.
Herman doused the shirt in gasoline as before, being careful to leave one sleeve dry. He threw the shirt back to Angeline sitting cold in her bra. With numb and shaking fingers, she again pulled another match from her matchbox and struck it on the side of the matchbox. Touching it quickly to the shirt, it ignited into a ball of spectacular, life-giving flame. For a few briefer moments than before, Angeline twirled her burning shirt above her head.
“Can you see us, ship?” she cried. “Look our way, please!” Consumed quickly in the heat of the flame, Angeline dropped the remains of her shirt into the sea. Profound darkness and silence closed in on the hapless couple. Herman was getting ready to soak his jacket with gasoline, when at the last moment Angeline and Herman could see the ship changing its course. Both the forward and the after masthead lights lined up in range, one above the other in line, and both port and starboard sidelights were now seen. Bright beams of search lighting soon pointed in their direction; the ship was coming toward them.
Four long blasts of the ship’s whistle resonated across the waters of Milbanke Sound.
Blast echoes struck Angeline and Herman’s ears at the same time. It was music. “They’ve seen us. Oh! Thank God,” said Angeline. “They are coming toward us!”
Waiting for my food, the chief engineer and I were talking in easy banter about the voyage and our fine ship. A jarring ring of the officer’s mess room telephone shattered the conversation.
Reaching for the receiver, the waiter answered, “Yes, he is here.”
“Captain, it’s for you. It’s important!”
Getting up, I quickly walked a few short steps to the telephone. It was not an unusual thing to be called while having dinner, guessing that the watch mate was about to inform me that we were about to enter into the fog once again.
“Captain, the bridge lookout, Michael Beach, has reported to me that he has seen a flame on the water, west of our position.”
“I’ll be right up. Change course toward the flame, and turn on the searchlights. Cast the beams out and ahead of the ship.”
Without saying a word, I left the officer’s mess room with a frown on my forehead. I ran up to the wheelhouse and forgot that I was ever hungry.
All eyes and binoculars strained to see the flash, and as the M/V Matanuska advanced, the rocking flashes became stronger and brighter, a small boat bobbing up and down on a choppy sea in an engulfing blackness.
I found the wheelhouse watch engaged in an intense search of the dark horizon directly ahead. Searing beams of our two searchlights came together at a V- point well in front of our ship. Mates and lookouts focused their binoculars where the two beams came together for any sign of what made the mysterious flame.
“Are we heading to where the flame was last seen,” I asked?
“Yes, Captain,” came a reply out of the dark. “We just don’t know how far away it was. We’ve seen a second burst of flame. Our engines are on standby and ready for immediate maneuvering.”
“There, I see a metallic flash reflecting back to us!” cried a lookout.
All eyes and binoculars strained to see the flash, and as the M/V Matanuska advanced, the rocking flashes became stronger and brighter, a small boat bobbing up and down on a choppy sea in an engulfing blackness. “Sound the General Alarm.” Four long blasts of the ship’s whistle spread out over the water. This was the Matanuska’s signal for mustering the emergency squad, and as an aside, to let the skiff’s occupants know that we see them and help would soon arrive.
“Slow ahead,” I ordered. Adjusting the throttles, the mate slowed the M/V Matanuska as she approached the small boat dead ahead.
Refining my binocular focus, I studied the situation. Wind from the north, boat drifting to the south. Looks like two people onboard. I stepped to the consol and took the conn of the ship from the mate in an unspoken move.
To the mate on watch I said, “Turn on all the outside emergency lighting.” With a few flicks of the switches on the light panel, the night darkness surrounding the M/V Matanuska retreated.
“Come left three degrees on the compass,” I ordered to the helmsman.
“Three degrees left on the compass,” came the reply.
Steady on her new course, I shifted control of the ship out to the starboard bridge wing. There, from a high vantage point with a clear field of view, I pulled back more on the Matanuska’s throttles and brought the ship to a stop at a point downwind from the small drifting skiff. Using the bow thruster and engines, I maneuvered the M/V Matanuska in order to hold her position in the wind and receive the skiff alongside below the starboard side door.
Discussing a plan of rescue with Chief Mate, Dennis Oldacres, it was decided to rig a Jacob’s ladder out the starboard side door while maneuvering to put the skiff alongside at the side door.
To the mate on watch I said, “Turn on all the outside emergency lighting.” With a few flicks of the switches on the light panel, the night darkness surrounding the M/V Matanuska retreated. All eyes turned toward the drifting skiff to find a woman sitting in her bra, shivering in the bow, and a man sitting on the stern thwart at the engine.
Passengers lined the starboard rails on the boat deck out of curiosity watching the action in hushed tones and surprise.
Knowing what he had to do and without any wasted words, the Chief Mate left the wheelhouse for the starboard side door. Crewmembers went into action and those in the emergency squad were mustered and ready with their equipment. Sliding open the starboard side door, a Jacob’s ladder was secured quickly to the car deck and draped over the side into the water.
Two seamen, harnessed and attached to lifelines while others held on to the lifelines to prevent them from falling overboard, prepared to help Angeline and Herman climb up the ladder.
To close the gap between the ship and the skiff, I gave the M/V Matanuska a thrust with the bow thruster, and using our engines and rudders, moved the ship sideways to the skiff.
Peering over the starboard bridge wing, I looked directly down into the boat. Water sloshed back and forth and I could see that it was deep. The skiff appeared to be unstable.
Words were exchanged between Herman and the chief mate, and just as quickly my hand-held VHF radio broadcast Mr. Oldacre’s voice filled with irony.
“Captain, this man wants us to throw him a heaving line. He wants to remove his outboard engine, tie a heaving line around it, and have us pull it onboard.” Coming as a bolt from the blue while watching the woman shivering in the cold, I felt the priority of the engine to be greatly misplaced.
“Deny his request,” I replied to my radio. “Get the woman onboard and out of that skiff first. We can worry about the engine later.” At the moment of rescue, Angeline wanted to save her life, Herman wanted to save his engine.
Waving off Herman’s request, Chief Mate Oldacres motioned for Angeline to stand and grab a hold of the ladder and begin to climb up toward the harnessed sailors and their strong, helping hands.
With the onset of hypothermia, Angeline was losing control of any coordinated body movements. She stood and turned toward the Jacob’s ladder clumsily, but with a firmness of mind to climb to safety. Her motion caused the skiff to list to its port side, so full was it of water. Her fingers numb, her hands cold, feeling weak in her legs, she gently pushed off the thwart she had been sitting upon and grabbed hold of the ladder.
Herman’s mind, while focused on his new outboard engine, was trying to unbolt it from the skiff’s transom with numb fingers and water up to his armpits.
Instantly, as Angeline pushed away from the skiff, a rush of water filled the boat from the low-cut transom. Responding to the newly added weight, the doomed skiff rolled over in one fast motion, dumping its contents and Herman into the sea. Except for a small pocket of air holding bow above the water for a brief moment, the skiff promptly sank. Spilling into the sea, Herman did a fast turnaround like an Olympic swimmer at the pool’s edge, reaching for the Jacob’s ladder.
Surprise echoed into the cold night from the boat deck above, and I watched in stunned disbelief the skiff sinking into the clear depths of Milbanke Sound, riding along shafts of light from the ship’s illumination as it descended like a birch leaf falling from a tree.
Watching it sink with fascination until the doomed craft could no longer be seen in the gloomy depths, I asked myself some unanswerable questions: How do these things happen? Why did the fog dissipate when it did? If the skiff was this close to sinking, how were we able to be here in time enough to help? If the fog continued, we would have never seen the flames, neither would Angeline and Herman seen our ship’s navigation lights. Both people were extremely fortunate. Their boat was about to sink whether we were there or not. Every second counted. Angeline may have prayed for salvation, if so, her prayers had been answered.
Herman clung on to ladder for life as helping hands from above latched on to Angeline pulling her up and over the sponson onto the car deck. With what strength he had left, Herman pulled himself upward and then his feet found the ladder rungs. Repeating the same maneuver, the harnessed sailors attached to lifelines leaned over the edge and clasped on to Herman’s clothing.
“Heave us up! We have him,” a sailor shouted to those attending the lifelines. Pulling like a tug-of-war, they heaved the harnessed sailors and Herman up and over to the car deck, bringing some of the Jacob’s ladder with them as Herman was reluctant to let go.
Angeline sat on the cold steel deck in shock, but she leaned over nonetheless, shivering, and kissed the deck. Herman was soaking wet and could not stand without help. Stewards were ready with warm blankets to throw around their shoulders and rush them upstairs to the warmth of the ship’s interior, and a set of dry cloths.
Returning to our route, we made our way northward, arranging with the Boat Bluff Lighthouse keeper to meet the M/V Matanuska with his workboat. Angeline and Herman were dried, warmed, and given dry steward uniforms to wear. We dried their clothing in our laundry dryers. An hour later, the M/V Matanuska arrived at Pering Point near the Boat Bluff Lighthouse. Stopping the ship, we lowered our port lifeboat to the water with Angeline and Herman onboard. The lighthouse keeper came alongside the suspended lifeboat with his workboat. Helping sailors transferred Angeline and Herman to the workboat and the good care of the Canadian lighthouse keeper. At daylight the next morning, the lighthouse keeper would take the couple to the village of Klemtu, only a few miles south of the lighthouse.
Our good ship Matanuska resumed her northbound voyage to Ketchikan, disappearing shortly thereafter into a swirl of fog. Passing into the canyon lands and deep recesses of the Tolmie Channel, the Fraser Reach and the McKay Reach, our ship’s magnificent whistle resounded once more, one deep blast every two minutes, echoing among the lonely mountains.
Story and photographs Provided by Captain Bill Hopkins, AMHS Retired
Author’s note: This story rests upon a true event that occurred on the dark night of January 30, 1994. During an interview in June 2012 for the KTOO documentary, Alaska’s Marine Highway, I stated that we used a cargo net during this rescue operation. However, subsequent to the interview, I reviewed my old notes showing that we used a Jacob’s ladder. I am guessing as to happenings in the small aluminum skiff we found that night, but I believe I am on track with the derived upon information we gathered from the rescued couple.
If you enjoyed “Precipice of the Deep – The M/V Matanuska – Part 2” and missed part Part 1 click the following link “Precipice of the Deep.”
Written by Captain Bill Hopkins, AMHS Retired. Visit the following link to see Captain Bill Hopkins book, “Alaska Sea Stories” on Amazon.