Cracked cell phone guides Coast Guard to boater stranded near Alaska’s Naked Island

A red and white plane flies over water, above someone in the water.
An MH-60 Jayhawk based at Air Station Sitka. (Emily Russell/KCAW)

A man was rescued from a remote beach near Naked Island, about 20 miles miles east of Hoonah, on Monday morning, thanks in part to the light from his cracked cell phone screen.

The Coast Guard in Juneau received word around 10:30 p.m. Sunday about an overdue boater. Lt. Tim Keily, a helicopter pilot with Air Station Sitka, said he and three other crew members responded to the search and rescue call. Keily said the boater was traveling in an 18-foot skiff from Auke Bay to Hoonah and had made it around a third of the way when his bilge pump gave out.

“Once the bilge pump was out, the water just flooded into the back of the boat a little bit in some choppy seas.  His first engine shut down. Then he had a trolling motor, a backup motor, and that also failed him,” Keily said. “It was just enough to get him to his shoreline, but it wasn’t going to be enough for him to complete his trip.”

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Keily said his crew had been searching from the air for about an hour when the Coast Guard Cutter Liberty called with a possible lead on the shoreline near the north end of Admiralty Island.

“And they wanted us to check it out. So as we headed towards the cutter’s position, we actually saw something shining on the shoreline,” he said. “So instead of going all the way to where the cutter was pointing, we broke off. And then, on the shoreline, we saw the person and the boat.”

What captured the helicopter pilot’s eye wasn’t a flare. It was the light from a cracked cell phone screen.

“Just the cell phone light was enough under our night vision goggles. It actually magnifies it quite a bit. We thought he had something much brighter,” Keily said.

“It almost looked like a fire under the goggles. But it turns out was just that little cell phone screen, and the night vision goggles just really amplify the light and really help our search,” he said.

Keily said the man was dressed in warm gear and had been stranded for at least 6 hours when the team found him. According to a Coast Guard press release, on scene weather was 52 degrees with 5-mph winds and less than 10-mile visibility.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated where the man was rescued from on Monday. He was on a remote beach near Naked Island, he was not on Naked Island.

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