Rescued men recount two days adrift in skiff off Aleutians

'PRETTY MUCH A MIRACLE': For provisions, the duo had only a pint bottle of water and an energy bar.

June 22, 2009 

Rod Whitehead had doubts he'd see his five children again as he marked 52 hours adrift in an open skiff in the northern Pacific on Father's Day.

But that afternoon, as hypothermia and dehydration threatened, Whitehead and deckhand Bill Osterback spotted a basket and a swimmer breaking through the heavy Aleutians Islands fog, lowered from a Coast Guard helicopter.

"I don't know how much longer we could have made it in the skiff. We were just so cold," Whitehead, 50, said Monday from his home in Adak. "It was pretty much a miracle that they found us."

Whitehead and his 50-foot fishing boat, the Larisa M., had been hired by a Bureau of Land Management survey crew. For five years, he has escorted BLM survey crews to ancient island village sites where 25,000 Aleuts once lived.

Whitehead spent Friday moving the crew from cove to cove along uninhabited Amatignak Island, the southernmost point in Alaska. The closest port is Adak, about 120 miles to the northeast and 1,300 miles southwest of Anchorage.

Osterback, 35, joined him on a final skiff trip to pick up the survey crew and their gear.

"We were just trying to get everything done, and we made a mistake and we paid for it," Whitehead said.

As they motored through howling winds and 12-foot waves toward the island, their 15-foot skiff hit a rock and the motor died. The wind pushed the powerless skiff toward a shallow reef battered by 20-foot waves.

"We knew it would kill us if we went in there," Whitehead said.

They managed to row the unwieldy boat around the rocks. In his last radio message to the surveyors, he said someone would need to get to the Larisa M. and radio for help.

"I was concerned it would take quite a few days before people noticed we were in a bad situation," he said.

As darkness fell, they kept rowing toward shore, then reversing course in the heavy surf. They rowed for 15 hours, until 6 a.m. Saturday, when they could no longer see the island.

Whitehead believed the BLM crew would be able to cobble something together to reach his fishing boat. "They're a pretty resourceful group," he said.

He was right. The surveyors fashioned a raft out of flotsam: boards placed on buoys and held together with fishing net.

With makeshift paddles, they reached the Larisa M. at 10:30 p.m. Saturday and called the Coast Guard, which launched a search from Kodiak Island.

But time was running out for Whitehead and Osterback. Their rain gear was soaked by waves splashing over the bow. For provisions, they had one pint bottle of water and one energy bar. They ate half of the bar Friday and the remainder on Saturday, along with a few sips of water.

By Sunday, the wind had died down but another hazard had set in: fog.

Whitehead remained calm but could no longer feel his feet when he stood up; his hands were numb and he shivered continuously. The temperature hovered around 40 degrees, the National Weather Service reported.

"There's nobody out there to help you, you know? You don't see people out here, no other boats," he said.

Early Sunday afternoon, they heard "little plane noises" through the fog. A Coast Guard C-130 Hercules spotted them and dropped a radio, a satellite beacon and three bottles of water. In a second pass, the plane dropped survival suits and food.

Coast Guard spokeswoman Sara Francis said the skiff was found 14 miles south of Amchitka Island. The boat had drifted at least 75 miles west, crossing 50-mile-wide Amchitka Pass.

Five hours later, with the C-130 still circling overhead, the helicopter showed up. The crew could not see the tiny boat but homed in as Whitehead slowly counted down over the radio.

The rescue swimmer ushered the men, now wearing survival suits, into the water and the rescue basket.

Whitehead credits both the Coast Guard rescuers and the BLM crew for saving their lives.

"They're tough guys, and the only reason the Coast Guard came is because (the BLM crew) built that raft," he said.

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