Skiff sinks in inlet — All 4 fishermen aboard rescued in rough seas

By Joseph Robertia

Photos by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Following a close call in which a skiff sank and four commercial fishermen went into the cold water of Cook Inlet on Monday evening, those same fishermen worked into the darkness to finish picking the nets of salmon that did make it to shore.

Redoubt Reporter

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

Jared Turbyfill, of Oklahoma, picks fish on shore after being rescued Monday.

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.

Photo by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Anna Berington, of Kasilof, loads sockeye salmon just hours after the skiff she was on sank. She and the three others aboard were rescued by a commercial drift fisherman.

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.


Filed under commercial fishing, Cook Inlet, public safety

3 responses to “Skiff sinks in inlet — All 4 fishermen aboard rescued in rough seas

  1. John

    The drifter deserves a lot of thanks!
    No fish is worth a life! Unbelievable and inexcusable that Mr. Osmar does not follow common-sense safety procedures when sending his crews out to work for him. Fish are obviously more important to him than his employees.
    The headline easily could have been similar to the one describing the clamming accident earlier this year.
    Thank God it was not.

  2. Joe

    And your basing this response on? reading this article? Not sure what common sense procedures your referring to, but I’ll tell you from working for Dean four summers he certainly cares for his crew and their safety is more important than fish. Shit happens out there on the water, its a dangerous line of work to be in. plain and simple. 25 knots and 5-6 ft. is no day at the lake but it’s not that wild. we fished much worse many times. As a fisherman you understand the risk you take, but if you wanna catch fish, you have to get out on the boat and fish…
    Glad to hear all the crew returned alive and well, and fishy.

  3. Matt

    I do not blame Dean one bit (see rest of response).

    The reporter never got to interview me because I was out trying to get the skiff back that night, but I figured I’d share a little about what caused the swamping here. If I ever write a full account with proper explanations then I’ll link it, but here are some briefs. (This will make more sense if you ever setnetted/worked for Dino, etc.)

    My name’s Matt and I was the skipper of the skiff, the Tin Can 2 or Twin Tin. That tide, I was in charge of six outer nets, had a crew of four (myself included) and two skiffs to deal with the fish and the nets. It was about a 19 tidal foot swing (which is a good-sized tide) and we were picking and pulling the nets if we could, or straight round-hauling the nets with the fish in them if we couldn’t/didn’t have enough time.

    We went out earlier than normal to moor off the second skiff off and circle the nets. It was rough, but it wasn’t anything I hadn’t seen before. The wind and surf were just two more factors to deal with.

    One net had flagged. Because we had some time before we could pick the other nets, I had the crew haul the net in the boat to get it out of the way/see what we were dealing with in terms of fish. The flagged net had between 150-200 gilled salmon in it.

    We then went to the inner most net where the tide would be beginning to weaken and started picking. The net had a lot of fish, over 200. Checking my watch I saw it was over an hour after book time slack, getting to when the tide is beginning to slacken and turn around these mile-and-a-half nets. With 5 nets to deal with and a tricky boat exchange I decided to round haul the net so we could get to the other 4 nets before the tide turned and we lost fish out of the nets.
    We round hauled it, pulling in the full net with all the salmon still enmeshed and gilled, putting the net on the side opposite of the flagged one to balance the boat.

    After this, I started driving to the empty boat to switch and get the other four. This is where I got greedy and slipped up. The moored off boat, the Tin Can 4, had higher gunwales than the boat we were in. But that last net had a lot of fish. I didn’t think I could get four fully roundhauled nets in the Tin Can 4. I felt real good about getting three nets in the Tin Can 4 and decided to put one more in the Twin Tin.

    There wasn’t one colossal wave or a giant error, there were a couple of little mistakes that hurt our chances. 1.) I put the boat on the net so this next net we pulled would come in on top of the last full net and not the flagged net. The flagged net had slightly less fish, but maybe it would have helped our chances. 2.) I had a day helper, a 1st-year, and a 2nd-year in the boat. Only the 2nd year could drive. He had just pulled in the bags of fish on the last two pulls. I decided to spell him, have him drive and I would pull in the mesh, the heavy bags of fish. He’d probably have pull in another 2 at least. On this day, the guy pulling in the bags was raking in the money.

    We started and then was a lot of fish. I had hoped to spread out the load as I pulled but big bags of fish were just piling up. The gunwales were getting real close to the waterline. With twenty feet left to go, Austin (2nd-year driving) says “We’re swamping, lets drive up to the buoy, untie the net, and get it in.” (Note: This whole deal sounds calmer in print than I remember it) I was keyed up, standing on fish to pull in more fish and did not want to risk driving up on the net and catching mesh in the prop. So I say something intelligent, countering Austin’s observation with “!@#$ that, get the !$%îng net in the !^&*ing boat.” We fight the last twenty feet, untie the net, I jump back to the steering station and sure enough there’s a unusal amount of water coming over the stern into the splashtray and into the boat. Everyone leans away from the listing side, we tried to make it to the Tin Can 4, which seemed agonizing close and then the boat flooded. One wave broke over the side, then another, and then it just sort of filled real quick, the motor cut, and we were left standing waist deep in water a boat that proudly held our three nets. And I felt like an idiot.

    The big mistake was obviously trying to put the third net in the boat, however we stacked it, it would have been too much weight with that many fish and that many people. I don’t think it was the last 20 feet that did, but it certainly didn’t help putting the rest in. I still wouldn’t drive up on the buoy with the risk of getting propped. Cutting the net never occured to me, but again the last 20 feet may not have mattered that much (though it propably was another 300+ pounds of those big Kenai slabs. The thing to do after we started would have been to let the net back out and let her flag. Honestly, I didn’t have the balls to do it then, but now I do. It may have meant losing up to a third of the fish in that net but that is cheaper than a motor and certainly four people.

    I’ve thought about it alot and in the future, I’d just leave the flagged net flagged and come back for it later after I got all five nets in the two boats. The fish that were in the flagged net were already gilled, the fishing nets were the ones that you didn’t want to lose the bag. If we would have had room for it in those two boats, great. If not then I could have gone back out in a third boat and gotten it.

    I had never seen that many fish setnetting before. The three previous years I fished for Dean, we scraped together our catch, highest day was maybe 2500 fish. Now in two days we handled about 13000 fish. It wasn’t in my frame of mind that I would need more than two of our biggest boats to handle six nets. But ultimately that may have been the best and safest option.

    Dean is exonerated (I should put that at the top). We needed to get out of the water and get that big drift boat out of our lines or otherwise I would have stayed behind to spare Dino the sight of a swamped skiff stuck in a net. We tried his cell phone, we called the cook shack and everyone’s number that we had memorized, but we didn’t get him in time. Dean fishes hard, but he always puts safety first and he would never have you take unnecessary chances. It makes you want to fish like hell for him, (which is good, because he’ll make you fish like hell anyway) but he’s the first to caution. We all knew the deal, ultimately it my call to go for the third net,and not listen to Austin. That was the first and last time I should have heeded Austin’s words, but in the future, if someone tells you that the boat is sinking, its probably sinking. I am very thankful that we were all ok. Again, it was not that rough and nothing remotely connected to Dean, it was a few bad decisions on my part.

    The end is pretty simple. Austin took off his pants and we caught a ride in to the river. Thanks Annette and Marv. We towed the Twin Tin back the next day (an amazing effort fraught with buoys and danger and ropes snapping and people screaming, a story in itself.). The boat is fine, the motor may yet run, and we all didn’t die though I still think we were a long way from starting to think that. Good thing too because according to this article, Austin had “stuff to do”. I don’t know what kind of stuff and didn’t ask because I knew he would tell me about it. But I guess that attittude is partly why this article was written in the first place.

    P.S. It’s “Steible”

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