Ronald Johansen was out camping with his brother and cousin in Chagvan last week.
After some successful geese hunting, Johanson set out alone by skiff Friday afternoon to return home to Goodnews Bay. His cousin and brother were to follow in their own boat later. The trip should’ve been an hour and half ride back, and the waters outside the sand bars were calm, at first.
“But then out of nowhere the west wind hit the outgoing tide and it started making swells out there. These were 8 to 10 foot swells,” said Johansen.
In his 14 foot skiff, Johansen took one of those waves head on.
“And I was going straight up and down on the back side of the wave and by the time I got to the bottom there was another bigger wave that hit the bow of the boat and shot me straight underwater and then the boat shot back out the water and I was still holding on,” said Johansen.
Johansen was wearing a life jacket, but didn’t think that was going to be enough. He grabbed a bundle of logs in the skiff, threw it overboard, and jumped in after it.
“And as soon as I jumped overboard into the water and held onto the stump and the wood, I looked back at the boat and another wave hit the skiff and did a barrel roll. So I jumped off just in time,” said Johansen.
The 22 year old says he was scared, alone in the water, no one knew where he was, and passersby were unlikely. As he started to drift further towards open ocean, he began calling for help on his emergency radio.
“Twenty minutes of being in the water my legs went numb. And then about thirty minutes my arms went numb. And I tied myself to the log and told myself if I die I am going to die tied to this log so they can find me,” said Johansen.
As his strength failed him, he panicked, and for a brief moment Johansen started swimming away from his makeshift raft. Thoughts of his family sent him back to the safety of the logs.
“And during this whole time there was a school of sea lions that were out there so I was six feet away from the sea lions who were just watching me the whole time. They just grut around and watch me,” said Johansen.
His radio calls were being received, but that didn’t mean a rescue was guaranteed. Those back in the village notified boats, the Coast Guard, and others … phone calls, text messages, and VHF traffic were flying out of Goodnews Bay Friday. The Coast Guard says one good Samaritan vessel made an effort but was turned around by the rough conditions. Now late into the evening and unsure about rescue efforts, Johansen was trying to make himself as visible as possible.
“Once I seen a big swell coming, as soon as I got to the top of the swell I would push myself up with one log to try and reach my hand as high as I could,” said Johansen.
Bethel based Yute Air was among those notified of the situation, and was able to direct pilot Ernie Turentine to detour from his route and join the search. Turentine says the big seas made for a tough search.
“I kept thinking I saw a lot of stuff in the water because it was rough out there,” said Turentine.
By air, Turentine spotted the swamped boat, and directed Johansen’s brother in law and cousin towards that spot. But Johansen wasn’t with the boat, and the tide was going out, so the pilot flew sea-ward, looking for Johansen and his bundle of logs. He didn’t spot him, but Johansen’s relatives on the water, given the swamped boat’s location, soon did. They hauled Johansen out after what he thinks may have been an hour and a half in the cold, choppy water.
“My wife and my kids are the only thing that made me hang on,” said Johansen.
Johansen says elders told him the sea lions he saw had been there to protect him. He doesn’t know if that’s true or not. But he does believe he is lucky to be alive this week.
And he also believes it’s a very good idea to wear a life jacket. Johansen has received reports his boat has washed up on shore. He’s hoping to get back out there soon to recover what’s left.