Alaska News

Rescuers plucked 3 men and a dog from a boat in Prince William Sound, seconds before it hit the rocky shoreline

The Privateer, a 45-foot recreational fishing boat with three men and a dog aboard, was moments away from smashing into a rocky cliff near Whittier earlier this month when a dramatic group rescue helped avert disaster.

A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter hoisted the men and the dog to safety — with the help of multiple good Samaritans and a tow-boat driver who kept the distressed vessel from smashing into the rocks.

The Dec. 12 rescue began with a call for help from the Privateer after the boat lost power and began drifting in rough waves near Esther Island.

James Simpson, the boat’s owner, said in an interview Wednesday that he and two friends — along with Pete, a border collie mix — left Whittier in the boat that day.

Simpson said he bought the 45-foot vessel in April and was looking for partners to make it more affordable. He had worked as a commercial fisherman in Kodiak previously and said he has owned other boats, but he bought this one because he wanted a larger vessel that would be safer in Alaskan waters.

The weather was fine when they left Whittier, but by sunset, the conditions rapidly changed near Cochrane Bay in the waters of Prince William Sound, Simpson said. The wind pushed the boat into the bay and they stayed there overnight.

“We couldn’t sleep because it was snowing so much,” he said. “We had to shovel the boat off, over and over. And then it froze into the bay, where we were anchored. And so that was disturbing all night.”


In the morning, Simpson said he broke through the ice and headed toward nearby mooring buoys, so they could tie up there and not worry about the boat drifting with the anchor. About 10 minutes after they left, heavy waves inundated the boat’s engine, and the vessel lost power.

Simpson said he called for help from the Coast Guard immediately. The rescue came roughly three hours later. He was glad he made that mayday call when he did.

The power of teamwork

Rick Reger was working as an on-call captain for Sea Tow that morning when he answered a call from Simpson. Reger, who spent more than 20 years working as a captain, began working for the boat towing company in Whittier a few months ago.

He took off from Whittier in his 27-foot Boston Whaler and headed toward the stranded boaters.

Simpson also called Jody Mason around the same time. Mason said he didn’t know Simpson personally but was Facebook friends with him. Simpson had recently talked with Mason about his charter business and called him for advice, because he knew Mason was an experienced captain and had knowledge of the Prince William Sound area.

Mason said he talked Simpson through what steps they should take next to keep themselves safe while he started driving to Whittier from Anchorage.

“It was nice to talk to somebody just to help me keep my cool more,” Simpson said. “For three hours, the boat was rocking around pretty violently.”

Reger reached Esther Island about an hour after he got into his boat, he said. By then, enormous waves had pushed the stranded vessel dangerously close to large rocks and the cliff.

Simpson said the men aboard the Privateer were fearful the boat would go down, so he and his friends donned survival suits as they waited for help.

Reger was communicating with the Coast Guard’s helicopter aircrew about rescue options, and Mason arrived shortly after Reger to provide backup assistance.

Conditions on the water had deteriorated even further, and Reger said there were 10- to 12-foot waves paired with winds of more than 50 mph at times.

“By that time, I was getting reports from the Coast Guard over the radio that they were very near to going aground,” he said. “They had dropped their anchor at the very last possible second before smashing into the rocks, but they were in a very perilous or precarious situation.”

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No time to spare

Reger began trying to get the boat connected to his tow line to move them out of the area. He couldn’t get too close to the boat without putting himself in danger, but he said he was eventually able to get the tow line to the ship by spooling out the line, tying it to a buoy and driving parallel to the vessel.

By that time, the Coast Guard helicopter was hovering overhead.

Reger said he doubted he’d be able to tow the boat given the conditions, and the group decided that airlifting the boaters would be the best option for rescue.

“The problem was that they were pinned up against the cliff, a very rocky cliff area,” Reger said. “And the helicopter initially couldn’t get close enough without putting themselves in danger.”


Simpson cut his anchor line, and Reger said he began to move forward and tow the boat away from the cliff. He had moved the boat about 50 yards away from the rocky cliff when the tow line suddenly snapped.

The Coast Guard crew rushed to rescue the three men and their dog from the vessel. Simpson said he was the last to be lifted off the boat and carried Pete with him as he was hoisted into the helicopter.

“Immediately after they got the last guy and the dog off the boat, it crashed into the rock — seconds after,” Reger said.

The men were taken to Anchorage for medical evaluation. Simpson said one friend had injuries to his hand and back, but he left the hospital the same night.

“It’s incredible these three men and the dog made it out OK, and the fact that multiple good Samaritans were ready to assist made a huge difference in the outcome of this rescue,” Petty Officer Dante Corradi, Sector Anchorage communications unit watchstander, said in a statement.

Difficult aftermath

Simpson said the incident has left him and the two others with him that day shaken.

“We’ve had some three-way calls where we sit there and talk, and it feels good to talk about it more, but then it also gets me pretty sad,” he said.

Simpson said he only had liability insurance on the boat and had been struggling to find comprehensive insurance for a boat that size. He and his wife started an online fundraiser to help cover the cost of the boat and the belongings they lost during the wreck.


Overall, Simpson said he feels horrible about the entire incident. He’s devastated to have lost his boat, and he’s sorry that his friends had such a traumatic experience. He has been overwhelmed by figuring out what needs to happen to salvage the boat while he’s still processing some of the shock and trauma.

Simpson said he has since revisited the area to clear the vessel of hazardous materials and is trying to find a company to salvage the wreckage. Mason said debris is scattered throughout the water.

Both Reger and Mason have been involved in a number of rescues during their years as captains. They both stressed the importance of checking the weather and being prepared for emergencies.

This rescue was “very, very fortunate,” Mason said, but conditions were bad enough that the trio should never have been out on the water that day.

“Please, please check the weather,” he said. “And if you don’t understand the Prince William Sound, don’t come out here. Especially during this time of the year, because there is nobody here — I’m literally the only boat on the water out of Whittier right now.”

Tess Williams

Tess Williams is a reporter focusing on breaking news and public safety. Before joining the ADN in 2019, she was a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota. Contact her at