By Joseph Robertia
When commercial fishermen string out their nets, they are set with hopes of hauling in a big return of salmon. On Monday night, four seasonal fishermen found out there can be too much of a good thing when they nearly lost their lives while fishing off Humpy Point in Cook Inlet.
“When I came up to do this I knew it would be dangerous, and I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but I know I definitely did not expect that,” said first-year set-net fisherman Jared Turbyfill, 25, of Oklahoma, after the 23-foot skiff he was on swamped and sank a mile and a half from shore.
Also on the boat were Anna Berington, 27, of Kasilof; Austin Borcherding, 23, from California; and Matt Scibold, 24, of North Carolina.
According to Turbyfill and the others, it was a combination of bad weather, a
ripping current and too many fish in the nets that led to the accident. Winds were blowing about 25 knots out of the southwest and 5 to 6-foot waves were breaking over their skiff as they approached their third net of the evening.
“It was so rough we had to round haul the nets rather than pick them. We had 200 to 300 fish in each of the nets we had already pulled in and were trying to get the third, but we couldn’t get it up and over the bow with three of us pulling. It was bagging from all the fish in it and the mesh kept tearing,” Turbyfill said.
Waves continued to crash over them and Borcherding, a second-year fisherman who was working the motor, began to warn his crewmates that they were taking on too much water. The others couldn’t see it from their vantage point and kept working to get the net in the boat.
“We couldn’t see the water because of all the net and fish in the boat,” Turbyfill said. “By the time we did, it was too late. Water started coming over the gunnels and we began to swamp, then the engine swamped. We went for the life jackets but they were all under the nets.”
As the skiff took on more water with each wave, one of the life jackets floated free and everyone agreed Berington, the only woman aboard, should put it on. The others clung to a buoy they had retrieved after it broke free from a net they had already pulled in.
“Then a big wave hit and we got flipped,” Turbyfill said.
The fishermen began clinging to the upside-down hull, but couldn’t climb all the way out of the water.
“There was a fleeting thought that this may be it,” Berington said. “That far from shore, in water that cold and in all that gear, there was no swimming to shore. I kicked my boots off and tried to hang on.”
Just as they were securing their perches the skiff rolled again. And the boat was now careening with the current and heading right into another net full of fish.
“With the force of the current, it wanted to drag the boat and us down into the net. We began yelling to each other, ‘Don’t get sucked down with it,’” Borcherding said. “It was an intense moment. I thought the waves breaking over us was going to be the last thing I ever saw, and it occurred to me I did not want to die. I still had a lot of stuff left to do.”
Borcherding and the others may have been scared, but they didn’t let their fear make a bad situation worse.
“To keep myself and everyone alive, I didn’t have the luxury to lose my cool, so I just focused,” he said.
“Everyone was calm, it was kind of a shock thing,” Turbyfill said.
“Everyone came up with good ideas on how to stay safe,” Berington added.
Borcherding had one idea that may have saved their lives. He tied his bright-orange bibs to an oar and began waving it like a flag.
A passing drift fisherman saw their signal for help, motored over to pull them aboard and gave them a lift to a fish processing plant at the mouth of the Kasilof River.
The four fishermen were employed by Dean Osmar, of Cohoe, who has commercially fished in Cook Inlet for 45 years. He said he has never had this close a call in all that time.
“This is the scariest thing I’ve ever had happen while fishing,” he said.
Osmar routinely goes out to pick fish with his crew and motors from net to net to check how everyone is doing. When he came upon the overturned skiff and didn’t see any of the crew, he feared the worst. He began searching for them in a grid pattern and enlisted the help of other nearby fishermen who dropped what they were doing to lend help.
To Osmar’s relief, word quickly came by cell phone that his four crewmembers were alive and well on shore.
“If I had lost four people, I’d have quit fishing,” he said.
Osmar then turned his attention to attempting to retrieve the overturned skiff. With the assistance of other seasonal crew he was able to tie the boat off to a mooring line and retrieve some of the gear, but a few balled-up nets full of fish were lost.
“It was ebbing too hard to try to pull it to shore,” he said of the skiff late Monday night. “We’ll have to try again early tomorrow on the flood tide.”
Osmar said he was proud of his crew for keeping its composure during the situation, and making decisions that got them through it.
With crisis averted, the reality struck of how many round-hauled nets full of fish were waiting on shore. All four of the fishermen involved went back to work. They continued picking salmon from huge tangled balls of net for several hours, into the darkness Monday night and the wee hours of the morning Tuesday.
Borcherding said he didn’t mind the late-night shift, and summed up the sentiment of those involved in the swamping who all worked through the night without protest.
“It’s better than being dead,” he said.