When the F/V Kristi lost power lost power shortly after midnight July 14 in the Nushagak District, the tide pushed it between two much larger ships, where it lodged on a Yokohama fender.
The Kristi sank, and the captain and crew escaped with seconds to spare.
The United States Coast Guard is investigating the incident, which happened near Clark’s Point, a Bristol Bay village just outside Dillingham.
The tide was coming in later Saturday, and the boat floated powerless in the current at five knots.
While skipper Jan Medhaug and deckhand Kyle Brojakowski worked to restore power to the 32-foot aluminum drift boat, Kayla Breeden, Medhaug’s wife, went to the stern to hang a protective buoy.
“When you’re out there fishing for that many days, you just think kind of everything is mundane, so I grabbed my buoy to go out there,” Breeden said. “I didn’t even put my rain jacket on and I almost didn’t put my boots on because I thought we were going to clear her.”
Breeden could see two large ships, which she estimated were “three football fields away.”
The 400-foot cargo ship Sohoh was anchored about 15 feet from the 330-foot fish-processing vessel Gordon Jensen.
About 10 seconds after Breeden hung the buoy, the Kristi struck the Gordon Jensen.
“We ended up getting jammed between the two vessels, pushed up against their Yokohama fender that was between the two of them,” Medhaug said. “We started to violently smash between the two vessels.”
The fender, a giant rubber cylinder filled with air and designed to protect the two larger ships from damaging one another, pinned the Kristi at the bow.
The aluminum boat bounced between the two steel ships.
“You could hear it crushing the boat in between,” Breeden said, recalling the sound of the breaking ship. “Aluminum is strong, but it’s not stronger than steel and water with all that pressure. She cried and moaned and banged really bad.”
Medhaug radioed the Gordon Jensen for assistance, and the fish-processor lifted Breeden off the embattled boat in a man basket.
“The guys were still trying to figure out if there was something we could do,” Breeden said. “Right as I got off I said to (the Gordon Jensen crew), ‘Was that as scary as I feel like it was?’ And they said, ‘Oh my gosh, yes,’ and they were looking at me like I was a ghost almost.”
Medhaug and Brojakowski attempted to situate the Kristi so that it could stay afloat through the incoming tide.
They hoped to extricate the boat from between the ships at slack tide, when the boat would no longer be pinned to the fender.
From her position on the Gordon Jensen, however, Breeden could see that the men were in more danger than they knew.
“Our boat is not a flat deck, it’s got a pit in the back for picking, so more water was building up in there,” Breeden said.
At the screeching groan of twisting metal, Medhaug and Brojakowski finally abandoned ship.
They scrambled onto the fender a moment before the Kristi capsized, bow over stern, and sank beneath the waves in seconds.
“As Jan was stepping off the bow, the stern was taking on all the water and starting to curl under,” Breeden said. “So two seconds later and he probably wouldn’t have been able to get off,”
The Gordon Jensen brought Medhaug and Brojakowski aboard in the same man basket that had rescued Breeden 20 minutes earlier.
“When the guys did get lifted off, I ran up, and we all three hugged each other just like out of a movie,” Breeden said.
In the aftermath of the disaster, many loose ends remain.
Coast Guard currently isn’t assigning fault in the accident to any party.
A senior investigating officer did note that the anchor line on board the Kristi was not long enough to be useful in this situation, where it was drifting in water 40 to 50 feet deep.
“Certainly an anchor might have helped in this case,” Lt. Cmdr. Michael Novak said. “Situational awareness is always key, and having the right equipment, knowing your operation can obviously prevent disasters.”
The captains of the Sohoh and Gordon Jensen have not reported any damage to their vessels.
Coast Guard will work with Medhaug on a salvage plan to mitigate any hazards the sunken vessel poses, including pollution risk related to the diesel fuel that was aboard the boat.
Medhaug and Breeden flew back to their home in Seattle on Monday, but they plan to return next year.
“We’re hoping to get a safe boat, and we’re probably going to bring our kids next year,” Breeden said. “What happened to us was a very fluke thing. I think we can all learn from what did happen and thank God for all the other fishermen out there that help each other and the way it is here in Alaska and on the river.”
Along with the boat, Breeden lost her wedding ring, Medhaug lost an Alaska gold nugget watch that was a keepsake from his father and Brojakowski lost the backpack he carried as a marine in Iraq.
As they reflected on the event, however, Breeden and Medhaug focused on their luck, not on their losses. Their 11-year-old son, who usually fishes with them, was not on board this year.
They are thankful for their lives, and they are thankful for the assistance they received from the Gordon Jensen and the wider fishing community.
Medhaug has been fishing in Bristol Bay for 25 years, 17 of those on the Kristi, his father’s boat before it was his.
Breeden has fished with her husband for five years. They had planned to retire the ship at the end of the summer.
“We put a lot of blood sweat and tears into that boat, there’s no doubt about that,” Medhaug said.
KDLG’s Austin Fast contributed to this report.