In May, an amateur sailor with no open-ocean experience embarked on a 1,200-mile trip across the Gulf of Alaska in a 24-foot sailboat. Earlier this week he was rescued from a beach on Akutan Island.
The last time Rimas Meleshyus went sailing was in 1993. That is, the last time before setting off on his journey across the Gulf. The 60 year-old Russian Cold War refugee says it was always his dream to sail around the world.
“But I never have my sailboat own,” he says. “I sail somebody else’s. But when I came to Juneau and bought a sailboat, I say, by this sailboat I want to go.”
The San Juan 24 is described on Wikipedia as well-suited for “long weekends or extended trips on inland waters.” Not exactly how most people would describe the Gulf of Alaska. Not only that, Meleshyus only equipped the vessel with the bare minimum instrumentation.
“I have compass and GPS mostly, that’s what I did,” he says.
By GPS, Meleshyus means a handheld Magellan from the early 2000s. He also had a passive radar reflector and a handheld VHF radio. Other than that, he relied on a combination of skill, luck, and lack of sleep to navigate the Gulf’s treacherous waters.
He says the scariest moment was when a whale hit his boat. His log entry about the incident:
“On June 4, 12 Monday was big bang on my right side, near my seat and engine. It was extremely scary for me. I think when me hit, now boat sink. Already in life raft. Very calm and sunny and warm. That was very bad news and I will remember for a long time, in middle of Gulf Alaska.”
Later in the trip, Meleshyus’ boat capsized multiple times during a gale.
“So, almost upside down, my sail, riggings, mast, was almost underwater. I don’t know how they back. I was very surprised. I was inside, closed door everything, so water not coming in inside, you know. And then continue.”
That wasn’t the end of Meleshyus’ trouble. As he got closer to the Aleutians and consequently the Great Circle shipping route, several cargo ships almost ran him down. He didn’t sleep for three days for fear of getting hit. That lack of sleep is how, a month into his journey, just 50 miles from Unalaska, Meleshyus hit a reef. He tried dislodging his boat for several hours before giving up and falling asleep. When he awoke, he was beached in Sarana Bay, on the south side of Akutan.
“I tried to do flares, but fog. I tried to use mirrors to planes. I tried climbing mountains and waving. But nobody can see me.”
On day seven, a passing fishing vessel spotted Meleshyus’ smoke signals and sent a skiff to the beach, but the sailor refused to leave his boat, insisting he would get it refloated. Two days later, a Coast Guard helicopter swung by and convinced him to come to Unalaska. The sailboat is almost perfectly intact, but Akutan fisherman Darryl Pelkey doesn’t think it’s salvageable.
“He went in there on probably a nine-foot swell,” Pelkey says.
Under normal conditions, the water depth in the bay is only 1-2 feet, not enough for another vessel to get in there and pull the boat out.
Meleshyus isn’t giving up though. He has no money and now no boat, but he says he’s going to figure out a way to continue his trip around the world. Either way, he’s happy with what he’s accomplished so far. On his seventh day of being stuck on the beach in Akutan he wrote, “I’m already in history [for] cross[ing] the Gulf of Alaska on [my] tiny 24 foot sailboat.”