Commercial fishing in Alaska ranks as the most dangerous job in the United States. Commercial fishing for tanner or king crab on Alaska’s high seas in the winter stands out as the most dangerous fishing job of all. Imagine bucking through enormous waves on a boat when the vessel starts to take on water and founder. Now, imagine this boat is in the frigid waters off the coast of Alaska – and it is dark on one of the coldest nights of the year. This was the nightmare Skipper Joe Harlan and the crew of the Tidings faced on a winter night in 1989 when the wind chill dipped to 55 degrees below zero.
Nothing was easy about the 1989 Tanner crab season near Kodiak, Alaska. Storm after storm pummeled the North Pacific, and it was colder than anyone could remember. Joe Harlan, the skipper of the fifty-three-foot crab boat Tidings, promised each crew member a ten-percent crew share. The pay was generous, but the crew knew they would earn it. Conditions remained brutal during the first two weeks of the season, but the fishing was good, and before long, each crew member had earned more than $10,000. Then, as it often does, the fishing dropped off, and they were only averaging four or five crabs per pot.
Harlan left it up to his crew. He asked them if they wanted to continue to fight the weather and work the gear or if they were ready to quit for the season and return to their nice, warm homes. Each man voted to stop and get out of the cold weather.
Harlan turned the boat toward Kodiak and headed up the island’s east side. As the dark, moonless night descended upon them, Harlan steered the Tidings through moderate seas approximately one-and-one-half miles offshore. Ice formed on the windows and railing, but there was not enough ice to alarm Harlan. Then, the boat entered a tide rip near Narrow Cape, and sea spray rained down upon the boat, turning to ice as soon as it contacted the railing, windows, and deck.
Harlan called his crew to the wheelhouse and told them they needed to knock the ice from the windows and railing. The weight of encasing ice on the superstructure could destabilize the boat and cause it to capsize. The thick ice covering the windows obstructed the skipper’s view.
The crew began chopping ice from the boat while Harlan made a routine inspection of the engine room. What he saw alarmed him. Seawater was quickly rising in the ship’s bilge, and Joe Harlan felt the Tidings list to port. He didn’t know if the crab tank’s circulation pump pipe had ruptured inside the engine room or if the bulkhead separating the engine room from the crab tank had split a seam. Whatever had happened, he knew the ship was going down.
Harlan told his crew to grab their survival suits and kick the crab pots overboard. Harlan keyed his CB mike and yelled into it. “Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! This is the Tidings. We’re off Cape Chiniak, and we’re going down!” Before he finished the call, the Tidings rolled onto its starboard side. Harlan saw the large batteries fly across the engine room, and everything died. He didn’t know if he’d gotten the call off before losing radio contact. Harlan flew across the wheelhouse and tumbled down into the fo’c’sle, where the bunks were located.
The Tidings sank bow-first, but due to trapped air in the boat, it stopped when only a few feet of the stern remained above the surface. The three crewmen on the Tidings, Chris Rosenthal, George Timpke, and Bruce Hinman, were busy chopping ice off the boat when the boat listed. They fought to don their survival suits, a dry suit designed to keep the wearer afloat and dry, when waves burst over the deck and slid the heavy crab pots toward them. The pots slammed against the rear door of the wheelhouse, trapping Joe Harlan inside the boat.
As the Tidings rolled, the crewmen flew through the air and over the side of the boat. None of them were wearing their lifesaving survival suits. Bruce Hinman’s arm became entangled in a crab pot, and the heavy metal frame began dragging him toward the bottom of the ocean. He fought panic, jerked his arm free, and pushed toward the surface.
As soon as his head broke through the waves, Hinman began yelling for his crew mates. Both Chris Rosenthal and George Timpke responded, but they knew their skipper was trapped in the sinking boat, and they would not last long in the frigid water without their survival suits or a life raft. Hinman could not believe his bad luck. This was the second time he’d gone down on a sinking boat in the past month. The first boat, the Cape Clear, had also gone down near Cape Chiniak. It had capsized in big seas and a blinding snowstorm. He was hoisted from the ocean by Coast Guard rescuers in a helicopter that time. He couldn’t imagine he would be so lucky this time.
Joe Harlan fought to find his bearings inside the Tidings. The bow pointed straight down, and he was in the bow section of the boat. While the ship gyrated in the tumultuous ocean, Harlan tried to find a way out of the fo’c’sle and into the galley. Then, seawater broke through the engine room door and washed over his body, carrying him up into the galley. He grabbed the handle of the wheelhouse door and tried to open it, but the pressure of the ocean pushed against him, and he could not budge the door. He tried to kick out the galley window, but it didn’t give. The boat continued to fill with water, and Harlan began to think there was no way out.
Then, Harlan realized he could see everything around him in vivid detail, even though it was dark and there were no lights on in the boat. His senses seemed heightened. He dived through the water filling the galley and saw the window’s outline near the sink. He approached the window and began ramming his head against the glass with all his energy. Finally, the window exploded, and Harlan suddenly felt like a sea otter. He swam through the small opening and headed for the surface. Somehow, the watery world around him remained illuminated, even though there were no lights nor even a moon shining on the ocean. He could see everything in vivid detail as he headed for the surface.
When Joe Harlan’s head popped out of the water, he was only a few feet from Bruce Hinman. Their elation at seeing each other was short-lived when they realized their dire circumstances. The canister containing the life raft from the Tidings was nowhere to be seen, and none of the men wore survival suits. Hinman asked Harlan if he’d managed to get off a Mayday call before the boat rolled, but Harlan didn’t know. He had issued a Mayday call, but did anyone hear it before the electrical systems failed on the ship?
The men treaded water, knowing that they would drown once hypothermia paralyzed their muscles. Suddenly, a large object exploded out of the water between Harlan and Hinman. It was the canister holding the life raft. Hinman and Harlan fought with the release line on the canister until it finally popped open and inflated the life raft. Unfortunately, the raft inflated upside down. Hinman and Harlan crawled on top of the overturned raft, grabbed the upwind side, and used all their might to pull on the raft’s edge. When a gust of wind caught the edge, it flipped the raft right-side up, and the four crewmen climbed inside.
The men were cold and exhausted. They huddled together but had no way to dry or warm themselves. Harlan tried encouraging his crew and told them they would make it if they could keep fighting. They tied the flap over the small door of the life raft to help close out the freezing wind. They found the survival kit, but it was secured with layers of duct tape, and with their frozen, numb hands, it took all of them working together for several minutes to unwrap the kit.
They found a flashlight in the kit, but the batteries were nearly dead. They found odd-looking flares with instructions written in French. Everywhere they turned, they seemed to run into obstacles. They realized the raft was still tethered to the Tidings. At any moment, the Tidings would likely sink to the bottom of the ocean, and they would go with it if they didn’t cut themselves free.
With his numb, nearly paralyzed hands, Harlan searched the pockets of his wet pants until he finally found his pocketknife. He used his teeth to open the blade. He then reached through the doorway of the raft and sawed on the line attached to the Tidings. Once the line snapped free, the raft stopped whipping back and forth. It turned into the wind and rode over the rolling seas for a smoother ride. While the raft was no longer tethered to the sinking boat and was not in danger of being pulled to the bottom with the Tidings, it was now adrift and would be more challenging for rescuers to locate.
Skipper Pat Pikus, on the fifty-eight-foot fishing vessel Polar Star, was pounding through the ice fog a few miles off Cape Chiniak when he heard Joe Harlan issue the May Day call over the radio. Harlan announced his position off Cape Chiniak, and then the radio fell silent. Pikus awakened his crew and explained the situation. They all needed to keep a sharp watch for the crew from the Tidings. He had no idea if they had gone down with the ship, were in a life raft, or were floating in the ocean. The boat went down so fast; he doubted they’d had time to don their survival suits.
Pikus asked for a volunteer to go out into the freezing weather and climb up on the flying bridge to watch for the sinking boat and any survivors. He then began a grid search for survivors, traveling back and forth between near shore to several miles off the cape. The skipper of another boat called Pikus and said the last time he saw the Tidings, it was several miles off of Cape Chiniak. Another captain said he’d seen the Tidings on his radar in the same vicinity where the Polar Star was now searching.
Pikus continued his search, squinting to see the ocean before him through the thick ice fog. He pulled back on the throttle when he saw a flash of silver dead ahead. As he eased the boat forward, he and his crew determined the silver was a piece of reflector tape attached to the dome of a life raft.
The crew of the Polar Star soon saw the stern of the Tidings bouncing in the waves. They approached the life raft, and Pikus yelled, “Hello! Hello! Is anyone there?”
The door flap on the raft opened, and someone yelled, “Yah, we’re here.”
Pikus pulled alongside the raft and looked down at the weak, hypothermic crew of the Tidings. He doubted they would have lasted much longer without their survival suits. Bruce Hinman was barely conscious and couldn’t stand. The crew of the Polar Star had to work together to pull the big man aboard. The rest of the crew was not in much better shape.
The Polar Star headed for the Kodiak harbor. When it arrived, an ambulance waited for the hypothermic men, but Joe Harlan did not want to go to the hospital. Instead, he went home to his wife and one-year-old daughter.
Not long after losing the Tidings, Joe Harlan took a job as the skipper of the M/V Deliverance, working as a tender for a salmon cannery in Kodiak. Harlan was much loved by the fishermen who delivered their salmon to his boat, and he was pals with most of the skippers who operated out of Kodiak. A few years later, doctors diagnosed Joe with terminal cancer. Joe did not want to burden anyone to care for him as the disease progressed. He had already faced death, and he was not afraid. Sadly, he took his own life rather than deal with a slow, painful death. He had beat the odds in the freezing waters of the North Pacific, but he did not believe he could survive a deadly disease.