A Donegal man, Seamus Hayden Jnr, recently took part in a dramatic sea search and rescue off the coast of Alaska in what a member of the US Coast Guard described as “the worst conditions he’d ever seen”. Here, he describes the desperate attempt to rescue the crew of a fishing trawler in 110kph (70mph) winds and artic temperatures of well below -18C.
Seamus is the owner and Skipper of a 58ft fishing vessel, the Clyde, which operates out of Kodiak. Alaska, he said, is closer to Ireland and Donegal than we might think. “No fewer than five Irish-born skippers run their own boats and live there with their families. James and Paddy O’Donnell from Aphort on Arranmore are just two of them.”
In the early hours of January 25, the Clyde boat was berthed in Lazy Bay, Alitak, at the southern entrance the Kodiak peninsula.
Seamus was rousted from his sleep by a crewmember of the Tuxedni who was hailing him from the dock.
“The loud and clear words that I got were: ‘The Heritage is in trouble!’ The crewmember then doubletimed back to the Tuxedni. I immediately called the Tuxedni’s skipper on the VHF. He told me that the Heritage was sinking just a mile east of Tanner Head.
“At the same time, the crew aboard the Tuxedni were cutting loose from the dock and heading out. They didn’t hesitate for a minute. I didn’t get a look at the air temperature at that time, but it had been at 0 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 18 degrees Celsius) during the daylight hours of the previous evening. The wind was blowing a steady 50kts NW in Lazy Bay and the surface water temperature was then 31 degrees Fahrnheit (just below freezing).
“I rousted my crew and fired our main engine to join the Tuxedni in the search. I did not know at that time if the Heritage crew had abandoned ship. “I informed everyone onboard my vessel to dress for extreme weather and to use utmost caution and a buddy system at all times around the vessel.
“Exiting Lazy Bay, the wind appeared to be increasing and visibility was very limited due to ice fog and the darkness of the night.
“I was able to hear the captain of the Heritage conversing with the coastguard and then he went off the air. I assumed that they had abandoned the vessel at that point. We made for the Heritage’s position as reported by the Coastguard.
“We were all keenly aware that the further downwind we travelled, the more ice we would build on the way back in. The Heritage had just been lost because of icing. Conditions just a few miles offshore were horrendous. I was very worried for the safety of all involved, including our own.
“On my vessel, we have an Automatic Identification System (AIS) installed and I was able to track the course of the Tuxedni in front of us in Alitak Bay. Listening intently to the VHF, we also heard that a Coastguard helicopter had picked up two of the Heritage crew directly from the water and were maintaining a position on the liferaft deployed from the Heritage. The Tuxedni was steaming directly for that position at 9.5 knots and the helicopter was zeroing them in on the raft’s exact location. The Tuxedni caught up to the raft, about four miles downwind from the entrance to Lazy Bay.
“As I tracked them on the AIS, they made about 2.5 knots, drifting a further three quarters of mile downwind, while picking up the five people from the liferaft. We had made it to about a half mile from their final position when we heard that all the Heritage crew were accounted for, two on the helicopter and five on the Tuxedni.
“I immediately turned the Clyde around and headed directly upwind. The wind was blowing about 60 knots and we had a very close sea of about 12 to 14 feet with everything breaking. Under full power, we were making an initial speed of only 1.5 knots.
“Coastguard rescue command wanted the helicopter to set down the two they’d picked up onto the Tuxedni or to land them in the village of Akhiok. “The intention was to divert the aircraft to another search and rescue mission ongoing that night. The fishing vessel Kimberly was aground
“They had 100kt winds (katabatic effect) where they were on the mainland side of the Shelikof. They had lost the use of all their windows, their skuppers were frozen over, lost the use of Radar and even the GPS signal was gone, so covered were the antennas. The skipper turned her to where he knew the beach was and kept her going till she hit.
“The helicopter pilot said conditions were too bad to proceed with any further rescue missions.
“The four crew members of the Kimberley remained on the grounded vessel until the winds came down next evening.
“Meanwhile, we were icing heavily and only kept our windows clear because our bow was taking green water constantly. The Tuxedni came in behind us and slowed at the mouth of Lazy Bay to allow us to dock first. They had no windows clear of ice and were relying on Radar only at that point. I believe it took some time to clear enough windows to safely dock.
“On the Clyde, we use stabilizer poles and it was some time before we could hoist them upwards because of the massive ice buildup that occurred in the four mile return trip. It took some imaginative use of our hydraulics to make that happen at all.
“Without that helicopter being there so quickly, the outcome would have been entirely different. That’s how lucky they were. I confirmed this talking to the helicopter pilot. He also told me that the conditions they experienced during that rescue were the worst he’d ever seen on a mission. They were pretty nervous up there.
“I was hugely glad that the Tuxedni and her crew were out there in front of us that morning. There is no question in my mind that they are all heroes. As are the flight crews of those rescue helicopters that fly all those missions. I’m pretty proud of my guys as well.”