Helicopter crew, pregnant pilot deliver Aleutian Islands fishermen to safety

Mihey Basargin of Wasilla on the docks in Dutch Harbor after being rescued. (Photo by John Ryan, KUCB - Unalaska)
Mihey Basargin of Wasilla on the docks in Dutch Harbor after being rescued. (Photo by John Ryan, KUCB – Unalaska)

Two fishermen were rescued from their boat grounded off Unalga Island in the eastern Aleutians on Tuesday.

A Coast Guard helicopter crew from Air Station Kodiak hoisted the men to safety about 1 pm. The two were flown to Dutch Harbor and did not require medical attention.

The owner and skipper of the Alaskan Catch said he’s glad he and his crewmate are unscathed, but his 35-foot boat is a total loss.

Mihey Basargin of Wasilla said he thinks there’s about 200 gallons of fuel still on board.

The Alaskan Catch was heading from Dutch Harbor through Akutan Pass to longline for black cod on the south side of the Aleutian Islands chain.

Basargin said he was intentionally avoiding the middle of the waterway.

“The current is pretty strong in that pass, so you try to keep closer to the shore,” he said. “You lose speed in the middle.”

He said a submerged rock put “a pretty big hole” in his boat around 5 a.m.

“It was pretty quick,” Basargin said. “A couple minutes, we were flooded.”

The two men put on their survival suits.

Meanwhile, Gavreel Reutov was fishing a couple hours away on the Bering Sea in the Foreigner. He and Basargin have been friends since childhood in Homer.

The two boats had shared a slip in Dutch Harbor’s Carl Moses Boat Harbor the night before.

“We quit fishing and came back and see what we can do for these guys,” Reutov said.

Reutov heard and relayed Basargin’s distress call and motored toward his friend. He also continued to help the Coast Guard communicate with the Alaskan Catch throughout the morning.

The Foreigner and the helicopter arrived at the scene at almost the same time, nearly 8 hours after the accident.

Coast Guard Aviation Maintenance Technician Joseph Garofalo hoisted the men in a basket, one at a time, onto the helicopter after the long flight from Kodiak.

“There was a tall cliff next to where they were,” Garofalo said. “We couldn’t get too close to them without risking our blades hitting the cliff.”

Garofalo said the top of the sea cliff was hidden in the clouds.

The helicopter’s pilot, Lt. Commander Kimberly Hess, said finding a break in the thick cloud cover, after refueling at Cold Bay, made finding the Alaskan Catch a lot easier.

But a 30-knot tailwind swirling along the cliff made her work more difficult.

“It was super windy,” she said. “But the truth is with that cliff there, I had good visual reference. It’s much harder to hoist over the water. So with the cliff there, I had something to look at, which helps me stay still.”

Hess said the rescue went about as well as she could hope for, in part because once the Alaskan Catch ran aground, its crew did everything right.

“They did a great job. Those guys saved themselves really,” she said. “[They] called for help early. They put on their survival gear. They didn’t get off their vessel. They stayed warm. They stayed dry. They never got in the water. They never tried to climb up a cliff or something like that.”

Two Weeks To Go

Hess said few Coast Guard helicopter pilots are female, but she has a characteristic that’s even more unusual for a working helicopter pilot.

“I am almost six months pregnant,” she said in the Coast Guard’s Dutch Harbor office after the rescue. “You can fly up until the end of your second trimester, and I’ve got a couple weeks left, then I’ll be done.”

“So my baby girl has saved three lives at this point,” Hess said and laughed. “She’s chalking them up.”

Hess also piloted the rescue of a man who had a stroke and seizures on the cargo ship Elsa about 150 miles south of Kodiak Island in July.

The Alaskan Catch rescue was the first for flight mechanic Joseph Garofalo. Hess said a celebration was in order after someone does their first rescue.

“If you’re not six months pregnant, you definitely go out and have a beer, but we’re going to have to come up with something else,” she said.

The crew agreed that milkshakes would make a good substitute.

There was little celebration down the road at the Carl Moses boat dock, where the Foreigner returned after helping with the rescue. Both boats’ crews squeezed onto the Foreigner at the end of a very long day.

Basargin said he was glad no one was hurt. He also said he didn’t know whether his insurance would cover the loss.

“We were parked in this same stall this morning,” Reutov said of the two friends’ nearly identical boats. “Now one of them’s gone.”