Two men from the Southwest Alaska community of Kongiganak were rescued last weekend near Tuntutuliak after their boat overturned in a storm.
Kongiganak Search and Rescue brought them home.
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The two men started their trip up the Kuskokwim River by boat to Bethel last Wednesday.
But they didn’t get far before they found themselves in rough waters. The men had told people about their travel plans. And when they still hadn’t arrived by Saturday, a search team started looking for them by plane. Bethel Search and Rescue and Alaska State Troopers were part of the aerial search team.
At about 5 p.m. Saturday, the searchers spotted the two men near a location known to boaters as “West Point.” It’s located several miles south of Tuntutuliak.
Bethel Search and Rescue Member Fritz Charles was on the plane. He said he saw two men huddled in the grass near an overturned boat waving at the plane.
However, Charles said, the plane couldn’t land near them, and a rescue team couldn’t immediately travel to the men by boat due to high winds. Over the past few days, wind speeds in the region have often been above 20 miles per hour.
A brief lull in the storm came late at night.
Around midnight, Kongiganak Search and Rescue member Roderick Phillip noticed the weather calming down. According to the forecast, high winds would pick back up in the morning.
“I had to make a quick decision to go get them before the storm hit,” Phillip said. “I don’t know if they would have survived a second storm.”
Phillip and his son, Jonathan Phillip, left Kongiganak in the dark, navigating with their boat’s spotlight and a GPS. They received the coordinates of the missing boaters from the Alaska Air National Guard, which had deployed an HC-130 search and rescue plane to fly above the missing men.
It was around 1:40 a.m. on Sunday when Phillip and his son found the two men. He said that it was easy to spot them. They had set up a fire, and the Alaska Air National Guard’s plane was shining red and green lights on the men.
“It looked like a spaceship that was going over us,” Phillip said of the National Guard plane.
He said that the men were huddled around the fire with a tarp. They were both wet from the waist down.
“I told them, ‘Hey, I’m glad you guys are alive and well.’ I told them, ‘We have to get them back to Kongiganak before the storm hits again,’” Phillip said.
Phillip said that the men changed into dry clothes that their family in Kongiganak had provided. The men decided to leave behind their overturned boat and explained to Phillip what had happened.
“Their engine quit and it was a storm. Not even about a minute after their engine quit, their boat got swamped and it flipped over,” Phillip said.
When Phillip heard that, he said, he thought of his late grandfather who had given him advice for that exact situation.
“He always brought up that if my engine failed in rough seas, first thing I should do is throw my anchor out of the boat so my boat will always be facing the wind and waves,” Phillip said.
He added that you should always check the forecast before you make travel plans. The U.S. Coast Guard recommended, in a news release it put out about the rescue, that people carry satellite phones when they’re traveling out of cell phone service.
Phillip said that the two men who were missing are back in Kongiganak and in good condition thanks to Alaska State Troopers, the Alaska Air National Guard and the two local search and rescue teams.