Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Jump!” I hear him scream...

But standing on the ship railing and looking down into the black frothy water as 70mph winds whip up 12 foot swells is not what I consider ideal swimming conditions.  In fact, the reality is that a person only has a minute or two in that 45 degree water before they succumb to the effects of hypothermia.  Hypothermia is far too big of a word for me to die of.  It would not look good in my obituary and so I’m considering the situation at my own pace.  He was right though, I had to jump eventually.  There really was no option left.  

I rehashed the unfolding events that got me onto a railing preparing for a crazy jump in the first place.This was not your typical brochure driven adventure trip.  In fact, it was not even
a choice.  No, this was my first real exposure to travel and it came via the Coast Guard on 370 foot cutter designed to patrol the Alaskan coastline in search of fishing vessels illegally fishing for protected species within our borders.  We’d fly around until we found a foreign fishing vessel and then there would be a race to international waters.  If we won, we’d board them, count fish and if they got caught with illegal fish we’d seize the vessel, deport
the crew and ultimately sell off the seized items.  

And that meant cruising around the Aleutian Islands in the Bering Sea.  Yes, that same body of water that spawned the reality show in the USA, “Dangerous Catch”.  Let me just
say this about that:  

They were not over-dramatizing the environment.

Chances are most of you will have never stepped onto any of the Aleutian Islands and likely never will.  They are remote, they are rarely warm, they lack a lot of facilities.  They don’t even have much in the way of trees on them thanks to ravaging winds most of the year.  Then again, if you enjoy a feeling of true remoteness or are into birding or WWII history, they might be on your own bucket list.  Personally, my bucket list almost always involves sandals and fruity rum drinks.

Thanks to two years on a Coast Guard Cutter going up to Alaska, I've seen more than my fair share of the Aleutian Islands.

But back to the story...

Our ship was riding out a fairly severe storm.  They don't call them hurricanes there; the weather generally sucks most of the time so why bother.  In this particular case, the wind and waves were a bit too rough to sail with them coming at us from the side so we just let the weather carry us down wind and ride out the storm.

That works great unless your family calls the Red Cross and insists that you be home for a family funeral.  When the Red Cross requests, the Coast Guard has to deliver.  But the only way to get me back the the USA was to bring a smaller Navy ship out to where we were and have them smash into the side of our boat while I jump from one ship to the other.

Yes, that's right, the military, in their infinite wisdom, concocted this scenario and commanded me to do the jump.  So imagine you're standing on a narrow railing in a howling, freezing wind, with rain pelting you sideways and you have a superior officer barking orders on when to jump.  AND HE'S TELLING ME THIS WHILE THE SMALLER BOAT IS SHIFTING AWAY FROM OURS!  

Yeah...this is pretty much how I remember being told to jump...
I was never really one for following orders and this wasn't the time to change.  No, I waited and did so on my own timing.  It wasn't a simple hop over either.  Our ship was a good eight feet above the deck of the other.

I tried to keep my mind off the reality of death should anything go awry.  I took the plunging step and it felt like dropping forever as the Navy ship again crashed into the side of the Coast Guard ship.  

My landing was uneven but I rolled overhead across the deck and avoided any breaks, sprains or other bodily injury.  It took several minutes for the adrenalin to stop pumping and I wobbled into the ship.

The adventure wasn't quite over though.  The Navy ship was low enough to be able to navigate into the target island, Adak, but the seas were too rough to be able to moor up to the dock so again I got to jump from the ship to shore.  Let's just say that wet wooden docks don't make great landing spots and I skidded across it like it was a slip-and-slide.

Adak is an island pretty far out on the Aleutian chain and at the time there was only a Marine Base on the island.  Basically you had a wind-blown landscape of rocks and low shrubbery with concrete buildings to serve as the base.  Getting to the island itself didn't get me home.  The weather was way too bad for anything to fly out so I got to spend a lovely evening at the base.

This is NOT Adak, this is Dutch Harbor.  You can actually visit Dutch Harbor without a military escort.  But this illustrates what the terrain of the Islands look like.  These days, the Adak military base has since closed making it that much more remote and desolate.
They did have a skating rink in the gymnasium but I thought the fact that they did a "couples only" skate a bit unusual considering there were no women on the entire island.  Perhaps these Marines had been out here a bit too long.  I opted not to skate and waited until the following day when I caught an AEW&C plane.  These are those planes that spy on everything.  They're basically just full of electronic sensor equipment.  There's no first class, no business class.  There's not even coach class!  I crawled underneath one of the surveillance systems and went to sleep.  It was actually warm underneath it.

While they didn't allow me to personally take any pictures, this is what it looks like inside the plane.  Needless to say, they weren't serving any complimentary beverages....or providing an extra seat either.
I can't say the Bering Sea was on my bucket list and I can't say that I would have EVER sought out visiting any of the Islands, but after years of traveling to more appealing destinations, I am glad I got the opportunity to experience them.  I could have happily skipped the jumping adventure but what the hell, it makes for a good story now.


  1. Due to the cold temperature, the storms in the Aleutian islands are extratropical, so they are quite tough to deal with, since you have to deal with the low temperature among other things. So jumping over to the next ship must have been very terrifying for you! But these midshipmen seem know what they're doing, and they would never put you in a situation that they feel that you could not handle. At least you managed to do it, so that's a cruise story to tell! Take care!

    Arthur Greene @ Machine Marine

  2. Arthur - Yeah, I thought about that at the time but was glad I didn't botch it and glad it is over. Now I just have a crazy story to tell. That which does not kill you provides good blog postings...