The great state of Alaska is, without question, one of the most beautiful places on earth. But the state's vast size, extreme weather, and barren landscape also make it one of the most dangerous places on earth. Fishing in these unpredictable northern waters is especially hazardous. Fifteen fishermen died recently in one incident alone. When high seas disaster strikes, the call for help goes out to the United States Coast Guard base on Alaska's Kodiak Island.
The U.S, Coast Guard station on Kodiak, manned by more than 1,000 active duty personnel, is the nation's largest, and with good reason. Coast Guardsmen in Alaska patrol more than 10 million square kilometers, an area twice the size of Europe.
"The air station will sometimes have to work search and rescue cases more than a thousand miles (1600 km) from where we are here in Kodiak," says Chief Petty Officer Marsha Delaney, the base spokesperson. "That would be like trying to work a case, if you lived in Los Angeles, and the case was off the coast of Seattle. That's pretty standard in Alaska. We're not talking just off shore. It's more like hundreds of miles off shore when there's an emergency," she says.
In addition to distance, Coast Guard units working in Alaska must also contend with extremes in weather.
The Coast Guard vessel Storis is one of four cutters based at the Kodiak station. Built during World War II, the Storis is the Queen of the Coast Guard Fleet at 62 years of age, the oldest vessel still under commission. Commander Mike Cerne captains the Storis on patrols into the wind-whipped and ice-choked waters of the Bering Sea.
"The weather in the Bering Sea, especially in the winter, can be pretty brutal. Forty foot (12 M) seas, sustained winds at [130-145 kph] with gusts over [160 kpm]. So, pretty much you see sky for a few seconds and then water for a few seconds and then sky with an occasional blast of green water where it just hits the bridge with a tremendous force and just obliterates your field of vision for several seconds."
One of the greatest dangers routinely faced by the Bering Sea fishing fleet is top side icing, which can cause a ship to roll over and sink. Captain Cerne says icing's a problem on the Storis as well. "Once in a while, when the winds whipping up and we got some moderate seas and the temperatures just right we'll start to accumulate ice. If that happens we carry baseball bats and snow shovels. We just turn down sea and, you know, send a crew out there on life lines and take baseball bats and start beating the ice off the hull and shoveling it over the side," he says.
The Kodiak station is also home to five C-130 rescue planes and eight rescue helicopters. Although the aircraft and crews are equipped and trained for extended all weather flight, they often find themselves pushed to their limits by Alaska's barren landscape.
Air Commander Darrell Nelson points out there are few gas stations along the 1300 kilometer length of the Aleutian Island Chain. "We only have three fuel stops along the chain. So they go three hundred miles (90 km), top off with fuel again, go another hundred and fifty miles (45 km), top off with fuel, and then leap another three hundred and fifty miles (105 km) to the next stop. And then we'll go off shore to pick up the mariner who's fallen down a ladder, or whatever's happened to him," he says.
Chief Petty Officer Delaney recalls one memorable rescue that made international headlines. In 1996 a Russian adventurer and two of his sons attempted to ski from Siberia to Alaska across the frozen Bering Strait. The ice pack broke up before they could complete the crossing, leaving them stranded at sea. "The Russian military, the Russian Border Service, called us saying that they had this group that were in trouble. And they weren't able to launch because the weather in Russia, where they would be launching from, was unbelievably bad and so we were the closest asset they had to get to them. So the air station flew a C-130 from here to Nome, then out on to the ice pack to search for the father and his sons," she says.
The C-130 aircraft failed to make contact that first day, but returned the following day along with two Coast Guard helicopters. "I was on the C-130 when the father lit off an emergency beacon that came across the radio. We found him and his sons. They were fine. They were just floating on an ice flow back into the Chukchi Sea. They were heading northwest instead of southeast. The helicopter gets on scene about an hour later and is able to pick the father and sons up and fly 'em back to Nome and then they were on the Today show saying how great the U. S. Coast Guard is," says Chief Petty Officer Delaney.
The trio might have thought to put in a good word for American taxpayers as well since their rescue cost $250,000. Still, for those who live and work in America's last frontier, the Kodiak Coast Guard station is, quite literally, a priceless lifesaver.