The crew of the Coastal Star, a crab-processing ship, was unlike the ones I’d worked with on my summer breaks during college, when I’d head for Alaska to earn money on fishing boats. The Coastal Star crew’s favorite question those first few weeks in January was not “Where do you go to college?” but “Where were you in prison?”
After spending the year following graduation as a volunteer social worker in eastern Kentucky, I had moved back home to the Pacific Northwest needing money and some direction in life. Again, I headed for Alaska and landed a job with the Coastal Star. For a reason still unclear to me (sheer stubbornness, pride or curiosity, I guess) I did not quit but instead sailed through hurricane-force storms in the gulf of Alaska, working 12-hour shifts seven days a week to serve endless coffee and meals to this crew of about 80 ex-convicts, Montana ranch boys and a few hardy women.
We spent the first four months off the shores of Dutch Harbor and then further out at sea near the crab-fishing grounds in the Pribilof Islands, gazing out the windows at bleak seas and nearly constant darkness, watching ice-laden crab boats unload their catch onto our windy decks for endless processing.
In early May, we arrived for the last leg of our trip at the uninhabited Saint Matthew’s Island in the Bering Sea. When I stood on deck for a brief coffee break, I could see green cliffs with mist-shrouded peaks towering above me, sandy beaches, patches of snow over lush spring growth. We were several hundred yards off shore, tantalizingly close. After four months at sea, I could literally hear this island calling out to me to come ashore.
Apparently I wasn’t the only one feeling stir-crazy. As I finished my 12-hour shift, someone yelled, “Get your coat, we’re all going sledding!” The captain had given about 25 of us permission to ferry ashore for the afternoon on our small skiff. Suddenly I was on land, running and jumping and sliding on the snowy hill above the beach, digging my shoes deep into sand, holding pebbles and shells, all of us glorying in this magical shore. We played hard, like school children released to the first recess of springtime.
After a few hours, the storm clouds arrived. Within moments, our blissful beach became a blizzard scene, with swirling snow, sideways winds and steel-gray surf pounding into our skiff. A couple of the deckhands tried bailing the water out of the skiff to no avail, drenching themselves in the process. The skiff filled with water, engines choked and useless. We were stuck on the island.
By evening, we all realized we could be here for some time. Several of the men from Montana built us three impressive driftwood shelters and three beach fires, small bright beacons along the dark beach. We huddled together and tried to keep warm. Someone from the Coastal Star motored out on the ship’s remaining skiff as near to shore as he dared and managed to float food to shore in plastic garbage bags. We munched on white bread and chocolate bars for dinner.
I noticed that one of the deckhands who had been bailing the skiff was trembling with cold. Up until this point I had felt buoyed by the exhilaration of being off the ship. But suddenly I was scared for him, and angry at the others who teased me and this big burly farm boy, ignorant to the specter of hypothermia. I lay on top of him all night in the driftwood shelter, staying awake in fear, asking him every time he seemed to drift off if he could hear me. Finally he stopped shaking, and we both slept during the early morning hours.
When we woke, I could see the Coastal Star through the fog and snow, bobbing on the huge rolling waves. Later that morning the foreman on board the ship managed, bravely, to motor through the waves on the skiff, survival suit on, and jumped in and swam to shore. The skiff driver had to return to the ship, unable to land in such huge surf. The foreman brought with him a radio, as well as the insane plan to have all of us put on survival suits and climb over the mountain to a more protected shore and swim out to the waiting skiff.
I declined the offer, but several of the crew did follow through on this plan. After hiking through the snow and unknown terrain in survival suits, they somehow jumped through the wild waves into the skiff and made it out to the ship without drowning.
Back at the beach with radio in hand, we realized no one on the Coastal Star had called the Coast Guard. Through testy negotiating, we convinced them to do it, thanks in part to my friend Mariah, who I think finally just picked up the ship’s radio and did it herself.
So the Coast Guard was on the way but would need 24 hours to get a cutter out to our area. In the meantime, a C-130 flew over late that afternoon and dropped us supplies by parachute. I ran up and down the beach, watching the small packages plummet to the ground from the noisy plane, noticed a fox curiously watching these strange humans on his beach, and felt inexplicably happy. That night we pitched six-man Army tents, rolled out sleeping bags and divvied out Army rations for dinner. A hierarchy of power had formed, with a couple of the outdoorsy men self-appointed rulers and distributors of food and goods. One woman (I remember there being only four of us) became hysterical, unable to stop crying. Maybe I was in shock, but she made no sense to me. I slept in a sleeping bag with my deckhand friend, oblivious to the continued teasing, happy to be warm and thankful that we could protect each other.
The third morning, we could see the Coast Guard cutter. The storm had not subsided, so later that morning they sent in a smaller boat with a rubber raft attached by a rope, and took it as close to our shore as they could safely manage. Survival suits were floated out to us in more plastic garbage bags. The suits were all size extra large. On my petite frame, I could not even reach the gloved hands, and the hood and neck area gaped open between me and the suit, letting in salt spray and snow. We took turns flopping into the raft to be towed out through the surf to the larger boat. I waited until near the end, with the foreman and my deckhand friend finally convincing me I had to go.
I dropped into the slippery raft, hating my huge Gumby suit. The raft plowed through several huge waves, made it out about 50 yards, and then a huge wave flipped me out onto the sea. Cold water seeped immediately down my neck and chest. I was floating on my back, bobbing up and down on the Bering Sea, and could only flop about helplessly. The enormity of the situation hit me with a silent, thundering thud in my brain. I felt small and very, very quiet. God was very, very quiet. Despite the storm’s fury, I was intensely aware of the huge stillness around me and in me. I thought, okay then, this is it.
Maybe 10 minutes or so later, the thundering waves crashed me right back onto the beach. I sat up and sputtered like a small whale. My two cohorts dragged me further up the beach. I sat for awhile on the beach, facing the waves, until I could stand on my quivering legs. Somehow I got back into the dreaded raft, made it out to the cutter, climbed the ladder onto its deck, and then rode in a basket carried by a hydraulic lift normally used for crab and clambered back onto the deck of the Coastal Star.
Mariah hugged me, we all warmed up, and the crew flew home to Seattle about a week later, our long winter ended.
I once read a passage from the Bible in which one of the prophets sits alone in the wilderness somewhere after a fire or some terrible force of nature, and out of the wilderness he hears a still, small voice. I did not hear a voice, but I recognize the stillness of that passage and know that it remains a part of me. I learned at 23 that I have no control over my mortality, but that I do have some control over my own decisions and choices. Life is sweet.
I made it home from Saint Matthew’s Island to later find a dear husband named Matthew and bear a beautiful daughter. Our 3-year-old Emma is her own force of nature, a tiny, joyful, strong-minded one. At times we have worried over her inability to eat enough and grow well, and sometimes I bribe Emma into eating by telling stories. A favorite is “Mommy’s Rescue.” And in telling it, there it is again, that pure joy of running on a desolate beach with absolute delight in face of disaster.
Marianne Wells, who lives in Seattle with her husband and daughter, is expecting a second child in February.