A Kayaker Fights for His Life in an ice-cold sea
by Matthew Keiper
The sun was low over Kodiak Island by 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve, 2014. It was just midday and yet nearing dusk as Frank Wolfe clung to the side of his flooded kayak. He frantically searched for an answer from the center of a small bay notched into the northeast corner of the Island. He turned to one shoreline, then the other while spitting sea water from his mouth. No way. There was no way he could swim any distance in these conditions, in these clothes, even with his life jacket on.
He was an optimist and an analytical thinker—a problem solver by trade, he believed—but this situation was different. Grim. Even so, he hesitated before pulling the handheld marine radio from his pocket and broadcasting his predicament. He keyed the mic and announced into a void, “I need help. I’m in the water in Sharatin Bay, Kodiak Island. I repeat, I’m in the water in Sharatin Bay. I need help!” The radio fell silent.
Eight and a half years later, from the comfort of a pontoon boat on one of Northern Michigan’s most beautiful inland lakes, Frank finally shared his very intense and personal story with me. I was familiar with what had happened, but I hadn’t heard his account. Until then, he would downplay it or shrug it off entirely if anyone asked. That evening, he was willing to open up, and I was all ears. This is his story as he recalls it with some input from me and a few others involved who I interviewed to fill in the gaps.
Early on December 23, 2014, Frank and four other buddies, including me, left Anton Larson Bay in a 14-foot inflatable boat with a finicky 25 horsepower Johnson. We followed the shoreline to the west and then diagonally across the mouth of Sharatin Bay in pursuit of Sitka black-tailed deer . We pulled Frank’s fiberglass P&H sea kayak behind the boat so he would have the option to stay behind, camp that night, and hunt the next day alone. He had a few days off work with no family in town for the holiday, so camping and hunting alone in a remote corner of Alaska sounded like the perfect way to spend that time.
By the end of the day, Frank did in fact decide to stay as the rest of us loaded into our boat. Just before shoving off, I remembered I had a handheld ICOM VHF marine radio that I told him he could borrow. I ran back up the stony sloped beach and handed it to him. “Here you go, Frank. Have fun.” Then I pushed the boat from the beach and hopped in as the idling motor jerked into gear.
The next morning, Frank watched the sunrise, seated on a hillside with his rifle laid across his lap, bundled in layers of insulated hunting clothes. He began to make out Whale Island and parts of Afognak to the north and northeast in the early light, while the increasing sound of a crashing shore-break lingered.
That afternoon, Frank ate lunch, broke camp, and began to load his kayak. After filling the storage compartments as best he could, he then strapped a full dry-bag and his rifle to the top deck. He realized that, after arriving by boat, he was heavy for his return trip. There was a bit of urgency to his step now though, as he wanted to get across the bay with plenty of daylight and ahead of the changing forecast.
Frank began the one-and-a-half-mile crossing in the lee of mounting west winds. He planned to hit the opposite shoreline and follow it for another five miles to where his truck was parked. As he progressed across the bay, choppy waves continually grew beneath him until they merged with larger waves coming in from more open water. At the mid-point, he remembered experiencing sloppy one to two footers from his port quarter—some large enough to momentarily lift the stern. But he was fully committed now, whether he liked it or not. He battled the boat’s instability by increasing his pace of stroke and fixing his eyes on the distant shoreline ahead. He was making good speed until suddenly the stern rose high on a crest and the boat rapidly rolled to starboard, plunging him deep into the frigid, dark water. Immediately egressing the inverted boat, Frank popped to the surface. His heart pounded like a bass drum and his lungs demanded air, but he could only manage short, rapid, sucking breaths. He quickly rolled the flooded boat upright, only for it to overturn again. Several fumbling attempts to reenter left him tired, cold, and keenly aware of his desperate circumstances. After the initial shock, he remembered settling in, taking a brief assessment, and asking himself simply, “OK, what am I going to do now?”
Forty-five minutes before Frank began his return trip and about 372 nautical miles west of his location, a Coast Guard C-130 “Hercules” cargo airplane (CG-1712) climbed from the long runway in Cold Bay. The CG-1712 and its passengers enjoyed a tailwind and clear skies as they headed home to Kodiak for Christmas. Its occupants consisted of a helicopter crew and a few mechanics who had just spent two weeks in Cold Bay, postured to respond to maritime distress in the Bering Sea during the commercial crab season. Typically, the out-and-back flight there was scheduled for every other Thursday, but because Christmas fell on a Thursday this year, the flight was moved a day to the left—Christmas eve.
Perhaps adrenaline muted the sting of the cold at first, as Frank doesn’t remember being necessarily bothered by the 43-degree water or the blustery air. He knew it was cold, but he wasn’t overwhelmed by it, he could think, he could move. And he knew the clock was ticking. He would soon lose dexterity, then all motor function, and then consciousness. He would eventually drown. Although he understood the effects of hypothermia on his body, he was still alarmed by how quickly the symptoms set in. Already he struggled to key the radio’s mic. He squeezed his whole hand, as if holding a brick, and visually verified the tiny “TX” on the backlit screen before he asked for help once more with an effort to consciously subdue the sound of desperation creeping into his voice.
While fighting to survive, Frank was also forced to acknowledge his odds. The tone of our conversation shifted as Frank recalled those critical moments. “I can’t die on Christmas Eve,” he remembered telling himself. “I can’t do that to my parents.” Frank paused before describing what he did next. “I wedged my arms under the kayak’s deck webbing in order to secure myself to the boat. This way, if I lost consciousness, I would stay with the boat,” he told me. “I knew I had to remain with the kayak if I wanted to be found.”
Being on the wrong side of a maritime or backcountry accident was a new and uncomfortable position for Frank to accept. He had been a Coast Guard helicopter pilot for nearly seven years by that point in his career. Plucking folks from peril was what Frank did for a living. Therefore, he knew the challenges associated with searching and successfully locating a single human body floating in the ocean.
A person in the water is much more likely to be recovered, dead or alive, if they wear a life jacket and use whatever distress signals they can fashion, such as a flashing light, high-contrast colors, flares, a radio or an EPIRB. With or without any of those, it is critical that a person remain with their boat or amongst the debris field if the boat sunk, to their best ability. In this case, Frank had his life jacket on, a radio, a bright red kayak, and a few precious minutes.
By now the CG-1712 was cruising fast and low, eastbound over the island when an unexpected and unconventional call blared from the aircraft’s marine VHF radio. “It was not a MAYDAY, but a very human cry for help,” the pilot, Lt. John Oscar, remembered. He and his copilot’s wide eyes met momentarily as they attempted to make sense of what they had just heard. Suddenly, the collective mind-set amongst the crew shifted from preparing to land at the Kodiak airport to conducting an immediate search and rescue mission. The copilot responded to the call by asking the kayaker for a GPS position to pinpoint his location. The voice could only repeat, “Sharatin Bay.” Only minutes from the distressed kayaker,
Lt. Oscar swiftly diverted the aircraft’s flight path toward the bay and began a descent.
Soon the apathetic rhythm of the slapping waves and gusty winds were overcome by the roar of four-engines and four props passing just a few hundred feet overhead. The towering terrain that framed the V-shaped bay created a relatively small area for the pilots to maneuver, in the typical low and slow flight profile necessary for dropping rescue gear. The angle of bank required for each abrupt turn became excessive, but this was a challenge the pilots were up for. They recognized the New England accent on the radio and realized this wasn’t just a kayaker in distress, but a friend. Lt. Oscar asked over the radio, “Is that you, Frank?”
He remembered the brief, humble response: “Yeah.”
Frank now had a familiar voice on the radio and an impressive Coast Guard air asset and comms platform overhead. But whatever relief he initially felt from the arrival of his friends was short-lived. He knew how this would play out and it wasn’t a happy ending. The aircrew would drop a flare to check surface winds, then eventually, a raft. It would splash into the water within a few hundred feet, at best, but by then he wouldn’t be able to swim to it let alone climb in. Hopefully, they had relayed a message to the Coast Guard Air Station in Kodiak by now requesting a helicopter and rescue swimmer.
Even if they had, he knew it typically took 30 minutes to get off the ground, plus transit time. He did not believe he would make it that long. Insulated, XTRATUF boots weighed heavily on his dangling legs. Tired, weak, and nearly resigned, he found a morbid comfort in the near certainty that he would be recovered, one way or another.
Lt. Oscar leveled the broad wings of the C-130, as into the wind as possible, as he set up to deploy a drop raft, but at that moment, he heard something else from the radio.
“I’m a Beaver on floats. Could I lend a hand?” Rolan Ruoss was heading west off the float plane basin to pick up a few deer hunters from Uganik Lake when he overheard a one-sided conversation from the cockpit’s marine radio. “Something about a kayaker in Sharatin Bay,” Rolan remembered. He could only hear transmissions from the C-130 and nothing from the person in the water.
Rolan has been operating as a bush pilot on Kodiak Island since 1979. He regularly scans marine VHF frequencies while monitoring the common aviation frequencies as a necessity in his line of work. It wouldn’t be unusual for Rolan to hear the Coast Guard communicating on channel 16 and listen in casually out of curiosity, while keeping a wide berth. Today was different.
The CG-1712 responded to Rolan’s offer with a kind thank you but asked him to keep clear of Sharatin Bay as they would be dropping rescue gear to a person in the water. Rolan, not one to argue, once more asserted with his characteristic humble demeanor that he could land on the water if needed. Again, he was told no thank you as a helicopter was to be launched shortly from the Coast Guard Air Station to assist.
Finally, and fortunately for Frank, a crew member aboard the CG-1712 spoke up assertively and argued in favor of the assistance offered by the other aircraft. This time, Lt. Oscar concurred. He asked the Beaver pilot how soon he could be there.
“Two minutes, I’m in Sharatin Pass,” Rolan promptly replied.
A blue and white de Havilland Beaver suddenly appeared before Frank, wings spread wide, descending from the sky until its floats dashed across the white-capped seas, heading straight for him. The hypothermic kayaker struggled to reconcile this most unexpected turn of events as the seaplane glided slowly into position next to him; its pilot already kneeling on the starboard float with an outstretched arm.
As Frank shared his story with me in the soft, evening light on a placid Torch Lake, I got a sense that he gained more than he lost that day. In his greatest time of need, his calls for help were swiftly answered with courage and compassion. For this, Frank maintains an immense gratitude for everyone involved. That being true, he has not seen or spoken to Rolan since stepping unsteadily off the aircraft that Christmas Eve.
Rolan was formally recognized when the Commanding Officer of Air Station Kodiak presented him with the Coast Guard Public Service Commendation, in front of a large crowd of Coast Guard members, nearly 12 months after the incident. By then, Frank had long since transferred to his next assignment.
“You know?” Frank stated with a distant glance to the horizon. “I should send him a thank you some day, with a picture of my wife and daughter.”
Matt Keiper is a retired USCG LCDR. He served in both Kodiak and Sitka for a total of five years as a helicopter rescue swimmer and a helicopter pilot. He now lives in Traverse City, Michigan, where he and his wife are raising two young outdoor enthusiasts.