The ocean is Cathleen’s favorite place. Yet it also represents danger. After she was raped on a boat, she says, “I still go to the beach. I still go on boats and swim in the sea. It still feels like freedom, yet I’m more hyper-aware now than I’ve ever been. And my sense of trust has never been the same.” (Marc Lester/Anchorage Daily News)

This article was produced in partnership with ProPublica as part of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network and is part of a continuing series, Lawless: Sexual violence in Alaska. Alaska has the highest rate of sexual assault in the nation, nearly four times the national average. Read our collection of stories from survivors choosing to speak.

Hearing the boat motor click off, she burrowed deep into her sleeping bag.

It was 4:30 a.m. one August morning in 2013 and they had been traveling for hours. Just Cathleen and the captain aboard a fishing boat little bigger than a minivan, now bobbing somewhere in Prince William Sound.

She had met the captain a few months earlier. Old enough to be her father, he liked to sit for hours drinking coffee at the cafe where she worked, chatting with townies. But soon after setting off from harbor, as Cathleen’s cellphone lost service and the shoreline fell away, he began to talk about how much he’d always wanted to kiss her, she said. When he let her steer the boat, the fisherman’s hands crept under her shirt.

Stop, she told him. She was just here to work. She had a boyfriend at home.

“What happens on the boat stays on the boat,” the captain said.

At 24, Cathleen, who asked to be identified here only by her middle name for fear of retribution, had already launched herself on countless Alaska adventures. Hunting, fishing and camping side by side with rough-and-tumble outdoorsmen. The guys had always acknowledged unspoken boundaries; kept their hands to themselves. This time was different. It felt scary and wrong.

Barely able to keep her eyes open, Cathleen told the captain she was going to bed. They previously agreed that she’d get the only bunk, and he’d sleep elsewhere. Now, the boat quiet and adrift, she cinched the mummy bag tight. “Oh shit. Ohshit ohshit ohshit.”

The captain appeared above her. The sound of his zipper. Cathleen told him no.

She fought.

The fisherman yanked her hands apart and forced open the sleeping bag, she said. She was still fully clothed and reached into her jeans pocket for a 2.5-inch blade, a gift from her brother. The captain wrested the knife away and it clattered across the cabin floor.

“He grabbed both my wrists with just one hand and put them behind my neck so I couldn't move my arms,” Cathleen said. “Then he started undoing my pants.”

The captain raped her and then spooned her, his arms and legs wrapped around her body. He whispered: You’re mine for the week.

They were five hours into a multi-day fishing trip. In the morning the man made coffee as if nothing had happened.

“I asked him to take me home a thousand times. I said I would pay him,” Cathleen said. “I said, ‘‘You don't have to pay me.’ I said I'd do anything just to go home.”

No, he said. They had work to do.

The next night Cathleen slept on the wet deck. Sometimes she thought he might kill her. In other moments, sitting on the deck and watching the sea, she thought of killing herself.

“I was thinking, ‘There's no way that I'm going to get out of here because I have no cell service and nobody knows where we are,” she said. “I don't even know where I am.”

When the boat returned to harbor, Cathleen immediately told her boyfriend what had happened. The boyfriend, in an interview, said the couple then drove to Anchorage to report the sexual assault to Alaska State Troopers. Cathleen underwent a sexual assault exam. An investigator told her prosecutors wouldn’t charge the boat captain with rape unless they recorded the man confessing to the crime.

Cathleen tried to get troopers what they needed. The fisherman had never paid her for the week, giving her an excuse to meet with him in person. (He eventually gave her $300 of the promised $500, saying she didn’t end up doing much work.)

In a post office parking lot she wore a microphone under her bra and asked him why he forced sex on her. He admitted to making a mistake, but the detectives told her they didn’t have enough evidence. No charges were filed. What’s more, because she had willingly agreed to be on the boat, investigators said they couldn’t arrest him for kidnapping.

Almost seven years have passed. Cathleen said she’s heard about other potential victims and shared that information with a detective in 2018.

A troopers spokeswoman declined to discuss details of the case, saying it is still considered an open investigation. When contacted by a reporter, the boat captain declined to speak on the phone but denied, by email, that he had ever had nonconsensual sex with anyone on his boat.

Cathleen, meantime, said her body and mind have never been the same. She snaps awake some nights to panic attacks. Her thoughts race and scatter. Shiny scars line her forearms from a suicide attempt, and she hasn’t had a serious relationship since the rape.

“I’m angry all the time,” Cathleen said. “So fucking angry.”

Mostly, she said, she wonders about the other women.

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The Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica are spending 2019 and 2020 investigating sexual violence in Alaska.

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