"Mayday" - A Terrifying Night Sinking in the Icy Waters of Cook Inlet

"Mayday, Mayday" - The Distress Call of the Barbara J

By Marty Van Diest

The motor died, jerking me awake. I was immediately on my feet heading for the engine hold. As soon as I lifted the hatch I knew we were in trouble. Water was lapping into the carburetor. Don Johnson and I had fished the tidal rips all day in the middle of Cook Inlet about ten miles offshore of Anchor Point. Much of the fleet from the Wards Cove Cannery was fishing around us. Because we had some engine trouble, at the end of the day we started back toward the Kenai River behind most of the fleet. While we worked on the motor a fog bank rolled in, reducing visibility to almost nothing. In 1972 we didn’t have radar or gps. We had a clock, a depth sounder, and a compass, that was all. I wasn’t worried though, because it wasn’t unusual for Don to pick our way back to Kenai in the fog.
Mayday fishing vessles Boats docked near the mouth of the Kenai River, circa 1970s. I was 19 years old and this was the first of my 18 consecutive salmon seasons on Alaskan waters. I had not yet experienced sea sickness and was feeling pretty cocky about that. Don worked as a State Highway Maintenance superintendent on the Glenn Highway for most of the year but always took a month or so off to run the gillnetter, Barbara J, in Cook Inlet. I had become completely comfortable on the Barbara J, and it had become routine for me to nap on the way back from the fishing grounds to the Kenai River docks. Sometimes Don allowed me to run the boat, but on foggy days his navigation skills were needed to find our way home.

Don started calling “MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY. THIS IS THE BARBARA J. WE ARE TAKING ON WATER AND NEED ASSISTANCE IMMEDIATELY”. He called twice with no answer at all...only silence.


When I lifted the hatch to the engine hold and saw the water, a cold bolt of fear ran through me. This was magnified when I noticed that the sea was a lot rougher than when I had dozed off. The fact that the light was fading into darkness increased my fear. Don said we had better get that water out quickly. The only way we could reach the water was by dipping buckets into the engine hold. Don dipped a bucket down and handed it up to me. I stumbled across the rolling cabin to throw it out the door onto the deck. I didn’t bother to dump the water overboard because the big waves were already washing right over the side and across the back deck.
an image of Mayday fishing vessles Mouth of the Kenai River going out to Cook Inlet, circa 1970s. After only a few minutes Don said the water was coming in faster than we were getting it out. He asked me to bail while he tried to get help on the radio. By this time it was almost dark and each time I opened the deck door almost as much water washed in as I dumped out. Don started calling “MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY. THIS IS THE BARBARA J. WE ARE TAKING ON WATER AND NEED ASSISTANCE IMMEDIATELY”. He called twice with no answer at all...only silence. The MAYDAY call shocked me because for some reason I was still trusting Don to get us out of this mess. The silence shocked me even more. I started praying...HARD!. Don uttered a few choice words and slapped the radio on the side. Then he called again. Someone answered. I got busy trying to bail water and only heard some of the conversation. There was something about the closest Coast Guard cutter being in Kodiak...that wasn’t going to help. Then there was talk about sending out a helicopter. I wondered how a helicopter would find us in the fog. We had no lights because we had no power. Don was trying his best to explain our location, which was only an estimate because we had been running in the fog against the tide. Suddenly Don turned to me and told me to stop bailing and to get our life jackets on. He then told me to go on deck and tie all the buoys together. We didn’t have survival suits or a life raft. I didn’t know anyone that had rafts in those days, and survival suits were unheard of. I knew then that we were desperate. The deck was not a fun place to be in the dark with water rushing back and forth across it. I grabbed the buoys and pulled them up to the cabin. I held on to the cabin rail with one hand while I was tying them up into a makeshift raft that we could hold onto when we went down. Suddenly, very loudly in the radio, someone came on the air. “BOAT IN DISTRESS, DO YOU SEE A BOAT IMMEDIATELY OFF YOUR BOW!?” Don couldn’t see out the cabin windows at all so he asked me to look outside over the top of the cabin. Through the grey light, rain, and wind I made out the silhouette of a boat only about 100 feet in front of us. That blurry grey outline is one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen in my life. I yelled inside to Don, “YES, there is a boat right in front of us”. It was one of those aluminum boats, which was a novelty to me at that time. Don confirmed that we were the boat in distress. They came alongside and as we tried to tie up they were smashing against our cabin with their rail because we were so low in the water. Eventually we tied up with enough bumpers between us and they pumped us out with their deck pump. Then we hooked up a tow and started the long slow slog back to Kenai. The husband and wife crew on that boat apparently noticed that I was pretty shaken up so suggested I ride with them while Don stayed on the Barbara J. After I was warmed up in their cabin my knees got shaky and my stomach started turning somersaults. I went out on deck and experienced my first sea sickness in the dark, hanging over the side of one of Augies Tin Boats of Kenai. I think it took us 14 hours to reach the river. That included at least two more stops to pump out the Barbara J. We towed it straight to the sling and hauled it out of the water. The problem was immediately apparent. A board had sprung loose below the waterline. We were back fishing within two days.
If you enjoyed this story, be sure to read "The Master Pilot - Surviving Against The Odds."  

8 comments

My biggest fear running my 32 foot 1964 Bryant wood plank bristol bay boat, Hit some pretty rough sea, but she held up! Popping a plank below the waterline is a disaster.

Tom Bush April 17, 2021

Brother and I had a 45 foot Halibut boat in Kodiak. We were headed back to town but hauling out on backside of communications base near the Coast Guard Base when we hit rocks below the waterline. Huge hole with water rushing in we tried to plug with anything that would fit. Just managed to get to shoreline and ran up on the beach to make temp. repairs to get back to haulout back in town. Scarey.

C White April 17, 2021

i trolled 2 seasons off west coast queen charlotte islands – same kind of stuff –
totallly loved the part where you were back fishing after 2 days -
don’t want to miss out on fishing season -

good on you

carry on

david norman April 17, 2021

Great Story and glad you all survived. Mine was not that bad but quite as scary.. I want go into details.. just the ending of mine was we sold the dang boat and I never got back on the water… :)

Christy April 17, 2021

My first halibut opener in Cook Inlet was circa 1990 on an old bow picker named the Barbara J out of Homer, Capt Mike Smith..

Joe Chase April 17, 2021

Fabulously written! I loved every word. Thank you for sharing your harrowing story!
Fondly, Worden Willis

Worden Willis April 17, 2021

Thanks for sharing. I can relate to that long up-hill slog up the Inlet to the Kenai. Happy to hear it was a happy ending.

Alexis April 17, 2021

Awsome story being a fishman i to hear of stories always good 2 hear people 2 make it back home from fishing 2 there family

Gilbert paniptchuk April 17, 2021

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published