Precipice of the Deep – A Sinking Skiff in Milbanke Sound
A couple slowly sinks into the icy depths of Milbanke Sound.
Story and Photographs by Captain Bill Hopkins, AMHS Retired
One prolonged blast of the ship’s whistle every two minutes resounded throughout the night, and the day. Rule 35 of the Navigation Rules is clear: “In or near an area of restricted visibility, whether by day or night, the signals prescribed in this Rule shall be used as follows: A power-driven vessel making way through the water shall sound at intervals of not more than two minutes one prolonged blast.”
With each blast of the whistle, a deep, masculine blast, the kind that reaches down as though to gather a deep breath, thunders over the waters, and echoes from the nearby mountains of the Canadian Inside Passage. The M/V Matanuska’s housetop shook. Hers was a whistle tone of ample depth and husky resonance. It is a serious sound meant to be heard by other vessels, its cadence of one blast every two minutes communicating to her audience of unseen vessels that the Matanuska was underway, making way, “in or near an area of restricted visibility.”
Fog had set down on the water from the time the ship departed its last port of call in Bellingham, Washington. Casting off her mooring lines in the late evening, the ship with her crew and passengers proceeded north to Ketchikan, Alaska, into a dense swirl of mist and fog. Placed on automatic by the captain, the ship’s fog whistle began its work immediately upon departure.
Engines were left on standby for immediate maneuver, a lookout was posted and standing at the bow. Conversations in the wheelhouse were hushed and kept to a minimum. A wheelhouse window was pulled down where a mate from time to time placed his head into the open air listening for the fog whistles of other vessels. The salt air smelled heavy of dense fog.
Matanuska’s navigators stood at their places of duty, watching the finely tuned radars for any signs of vessel traffic on a collision course with our ship.
Not a ripple was found on the water, and the air fell to a silent calm between blasts. In conditions such as these, finely tuned radars can detect the smallest of targets, from a floating log dead in the water, to a seagull or a duck swimming on the surface. Yet, long experience taught that a wooden boat with a rounded stern presenting the right aspect or angle could become invisible to marine radar.
I thought back to a near collision with a wooden halibut schooner, built with a smooth, rounded stern. She was traveling in the same direction as our ship and directly ahead. Hiding underneath the radar heading flash and obscured in the night’s darkness, she remained unseen by both the navigator and the lookout’s eyes. Radar energy deflected on the rounded stern, and did not return strong enough reflected energy for radar detection.
Our ship drew near unintentionally, as though to run the undetected halibut schooner down. Behind the mountains, a rising full moon began to throw a dim glow across the water’s surface, just enough to provide some light and cause a fraction of the dark night to retreat. Nature’s provision was to preclude a disaster.
“I see the wave of a vessel’s wake on the port side,” the bow lookout reported.
Then came a report of a second wake wave on our starboard side. Both were converging to a point dead ahead.
“There’s a boat dead ahead!” cried the lookout.
“Hard right rudder,” I ordered to the helmsman.
Down went the wheel, and our ship responded with a sharp turn to the starboard. As she turned, the form of the unseen halibut schooner emerged in the moonlit darkness, passing down the port side of our ship. The mystery vessel carried no lights. It was only by the use of a lookout and a rising moon that prevented a collision. I learned a valuable lesson from this near miss: Radar does not find all targets.
Matanuska’s wheelhouse crew was on high alert, listening, watching, and maintaining their guard. “Constant vigilance is the price of safety,”—the old saying was on every person’s mind. Radar glow illuminated their faces. Below in the engine room, the assistant engineer remained in the control booth, “ready for immediate maneuver.”
Presently, well along the voyage up the coast along the Inside Passage of British Columbia, there were no indications that the fog would lift anytime soon. If anything, it became denser. With unending monotony, the whistle blew her prolonged blast. I had been in the wheelhouse for most of the night and when I returned to my stateroom, I had difficulty sleeping. Having turned over the watch to the ship’s pilot, I decided to turn in for some rest. Sleep came slowly. After awhile, the whistle blasts faded from my ears and mind, and a refreshing rest overcame everything else.
My rest was uninterrupted, the telephone mounted on the bulkhead immediately above my bunk did not ring, and no one came knocking on my stateroom door. When I did awaken, several hours had passed, and it came as a sudden revelation that the fog whistle had fallen silent.
Angeline had wanted to see her grandmother in Klemtu. Promises had been made to pay her a visit, but short days and January weather had prevented any traveling from her home in Waglisla, just across the channel from Bella Bella. Her only means to travel was in her boyfriend Herman’s skiff. Wind and waves were always a problem, and the fog had hung on for several days in a row. Herman’s boat was an open aluminum-hulled skiff with a low-cut transom stern. Good visibility and calm water were prerequisites for a safe voyage up the Inside Passage to Klemtu.
Herman had just purchased a new outboard engine. With 50 HP of new power to use, Herman was anxious to try out the new engine. A trip to Klemtu was ideal for his sea trial, and so he waited for the fog to lift, and told Angeline to be “ready on short notice.”
Klemtu is forty-four nautical miles north of Waglisla on Swindle Island, and Herman knew the country well. He would take some back channels behind Ivory Island to avoid the open waters of Milbanke Sound, midway between Waglisla and their destination. He planned to pass through Blair Inlet, between Ivory and Cecilia Islands. It was entangled with numerous rocks and small islets, but suitable for small craft piloted by those with local knowledge.
From Blair Inlet, the duo would proceed toward Vancouver Rock, and then Merilia Passage behind the Gaudin Islands, and across the northern reaches of Milbanke Sound to Jorkins Point and Finlayson Channel. Finlayson Channel led to Klemtu Passage and their final destination.
It was a low, fractured landscape of winding deep tentacles of sea, dotted with rocks and islets reaching inland. Shores were covered in dense stands of old-growth Sitka spruce, hemlock and cedar, scenting the air both from the sea and the forest. Once in Finlayson Channel, however, low land gave way to steep mountains rising from the sea. Thickly clothed in timber, except for a few scars from large landslides that reached the waterline, mountains rose to 2,600 feet and closed in from both sides of the channel.
Fog began to lift, and Herman gave Angeline her “short notice.” In his rush to get underway, Herman boarded his skiff, pulled on the starter chord, and the new engine started up without any effort. He dressed lightly and did not bring oars, lifejackets, extra clothing, a spare engine, flashlights, tool kit, a VHF radio, flares, or a bilge bailer. After all, it was only a “test run.” There was no food onboard, but he did bring his high caliber bolt-action rifle. Angeline’s grandmother would prepare their dinner and perhaps have a warm red huckleberry pie on her kitchen table waiting for them to celebrate their arrival.
Angeline put on her rubber boots and followed Herman down the dock ramp. At his direction, she sat on the forward bow thwart with her back to the wind, facing Herman sitting at the stern. One thing she always carried as a matter of habit was a box of matches, wrapped inside a plastic sack to keep them dry, and stored in her coat pocket. Herman bent over to check the fuel level in the gas tank. It was full to capacity with oil-mixed gasoline.
Running smoothly, Herman’s new engine pleased him, and he smiled at Angeline sitting in the bow. Her long, dark hair blew aft toward Herman, who remained on the stern thwart with his hand on the engine throttle and tiller.
Angeline returned a smile to Herman, and her admiration. He had worked hard to save enough money to purchase the engine. She was grateful to finally be on her way to Klemtu.
Clear of the harbor, Herman opened the throttle to full speed lifting the bow. The engine’s propeller bit into the water, and the stern came down. An energetic thrust stream and vessel wake passed astern. There was little freeboard between the low-cut transom and the surface of the water where the engine was mounted. As long as Herman kept his vessel moving forward at a fast rate, there was little danger of any water entering into the boat.
Along the way, they met few boats. It was as though the country were empty of any humanity. Passing the Dryad Point Lighthouse, they sped away into the Canadian wilderness for Klemtu and grandmother’s house. Having made the trip many times in the past, this one promised to be different. With a new and more powerful engine, it would take less time. Herman calculated it would take an hour and forty-five minutes to cover the distance, instead of the usual three hours it used to take in the past with his older, less powerful engine.
Scanning the horizon ahead for logs, driftwood, or floating kelp, Herman watched the water attentively. Sea birds scattered out of their way, too filled with small feeder fish for an easy liftoff. The sky cleared though patches of fog lingered here and there. They expected to arrive in Klemtu before nightfall.
A strong scent of cedar filled the cold air as they meticulously followed the planned route. Leaving the shelter of Merilia Passage, they stuck out across the top of Milbanke Sound to Jorkins Point, the southern point of Swindle Island and the entrance to Finlayson Channel. Following along the rocky shoreline, Herman proceeded to Swindle Point.
Rounding Swindle Point, the summit of 1,285-foot high Cone Island came into view. Locally known as the “China Hat” this distinctive peak was an aid to navigation to show the way toward the nearly invisible, shadow-covered Klemtu Passage along its left side, a narrow and deep, but through waterway leading to Trout Bay and the settlement of Klemtu.
Perched along the western shore of Klemtu Passage, Angeline could not wait to get to her grandmother’s house. With the China Hat in sight, their destination was not far. Both she and Herman had become cold in the sharp January air. A stiff 15-knot north-northeast wind greeted them. In the 44 degree Fahrenheit temperatures, the chill factor felt as though it were 25 degrees. Seas were rising into a short, nasty chop. Herman slowed his craft down to lessen the possibility of making a drenching sea spray, and the effects of a low chill factor.
Adjusting the throttle downward, the engine coughed, and stalled, and fell silent.
Visions of being in the warmth of her grandmother’s house vanished, and the skiff drifted to a stop. All that could be heard were wind, sea, and Herman cursing at his engine. Pulling on the starting chord, the new engine refused to start.
With Klemtu hidden behind the China Hat, but nearly in sight, the skiff turned in the wind, with her stern up into the wind, and her bow pointing downwind like a weather vane. Angeline and Herman began a slow drift southward, where the wind and the ebbing tide would take them, down Finlayson Channel and out into Milbanke Sound toward the open Pacific Ocean.
Perhaps it was something simple, a faulty spark plug, or a plugged fuel filter.
Herman had no tools. With no spare engine or oars, he could not maneuver his boat to keep her bow into the wind by motoring or rowing toward Klemtu. Without a VHF radio, he could not call for help. Without any flares, he could not signal other vessels. Without any bilge pump, he could not pump the water slopping into the boat over the low-cut transom stern. A choppy sea battered the stern spilling seawater into the boat. Water levels in the bilge rose slowly, eventually immersing their feet in cold water.
Angeline and Herman both could have removed their boots and used them to scoop the water and pour it overboard, but apparently this did not occur to them. Seawater continued slopping over the transom stern and little by little, the water became deeper inside the boat. With no other vessels in sight, with no lifejackets to don, drifting farther from land toward Milbanke Sound, Herman and Angeline’s lives were now in peril.
Perhaps the engine was only flooded with extra gasoline, and needed some time to drain and dry before attempting to start it again. Herman waited an appropriate amount of time, and tried once more to start his new engine. Putting extra effort in pulling on the starting lanyard as though it may help, but regardless, the engine would not start. As Herman worked on the engine, the water level gained on the boat.
The China Hat disappeared from view behind Jorkins Point. Soon they were out into the open spaces and depths of Milbanke Sound. Drifting in the north wind and a south flowing ebb tide, they shivered, and as the water level in the boat rose, the skiff’s freeboard decreased allowing even more water to spill into the boat. Feeling a slight ocean swell, it was only a matter of time before their craft would be swamped, and they would be left struggling to stay afloat in the cold waters of Milbanke Sound.
A red sky offered a beautiful sunset as they watched the sun dip below the horizon of the Pacific Ocean, but this was of no comfort nor was it a time for taking in the wonders around them. The waters of Milbanke Sound crept up their legs, soaking their feet and clothing. Darkness came swiftly with a night sky illuminated with thousands of twinkling stars shining brightly above them. Shivering increased, and soon their movements were uncoordinated and their speech became slurred.
Herman encouraged Angeline and continued to try starting the stubborn engine.
Moonless, complete darkness surrounded them, and no lights were in sight except for the regularity of the Vancouver Rock Whistle Buoy just to the west of the rock. The buoy’s whistle activated by the slight ocean swell was heard faintly, but otherwise they were alone. To the southeast, the manned Ivory Island Lighthouse beacon was seen rotating in the distance. Without any radio communications, those who staffed the lighthouse were unaware of Angeline and Herman’s predicament.
Herman was preoccupied with the engine, to no avail. Angeline was angry for the quandary in which she now found herself. Time had no meaning, and after drifting four hours and nine miles, hope withered. Her hands had turned numb. Water crept up her pants legs like a siphon, and she could feel the boat slowly sinking into the dark waters of Milbanke Sound. She stared overboard into the precipice of the deep.
“Precipice of the Deep – A Perilous Night Rescue in Milbanke Sound” to be continued…
If you enjoyed this “Precipice of the Deep – A Perilous Night Rescue in Milbanke Sound,” check out “Mayday” – A Terrifying Night Sinking in the Icy Waters of Cook Inlet”
Written by Captain Bill Hopkins, AMHS Retired. Visit the following link to see Captain Bill Hopkins book, “Alaska Sea Stories” on Amazon.