It all started on that icy dock in Sitka. I was standing on the bow of our fishing boat, watching our other deckhand, Barry, come running down the ramp with a duffel bag slung across his shoulder. We should have left the harbor an hour earlier and our captain, Elias, was visibly impatient. He sat in the wheelhouse with the lights on and the engine running. As Barry jogged by me toward the rear of the boat, he mumbled something that I didn’t quite hear. I could see him toss his bag onboard then climb over the rail and onto the stern. Seconds later, he undid his lines and threw them onto the dock.
“Stern clear!” he shouted. This was my cue. I quickly undid my lines, spring first then bow, and signalled to Elias that the bow was clear. Our boat, the True North, began edging out of its berth. After turning around, we crept out past the breakwater and the captain spooled-up to full throttle. It took a little over two hours to get to the fishing grounds and we were already late. The three of us had fished together for two years and, aside from Barry being later than usual, this trip had started like any other. I didn’t know it then, but the trip was going to be anything but usual. It was going to change our lives forever.
Barry and I had made our way into the main cabin to warm up. Elias was listening to the Coast Guard weather report. What we heard, although disheartening, was not a surprise. NOAA was calling for quite a storm to blow in by early afternoon. High winds and heavy, turbulent seas were in the forecast. Normally, we would have stayed in harbor, or if we were fishing, we would have raised gear and charged toward home. In fact, the farther out we went, the more we were passed by other trolling vessels doing just that. This trip was different, however. The winter season had been especially bad for us financially. We had been plagued with sparse catches leading to increasingly smaller paydays. Elias had convinced us to ignore our instincts and go out anyway. He was very persuasive. We were to fish until the weather got too bad, then anchor out behind Bird Island and ride out the storm. When the weather cleared we would charge back to the fishing grounds and fish while the rest of the fleet hurried to get back. We would be alone, with all the king salmon to ourselves for hours. We planned on breaking records. I could finally bring home a big paycheck to my wife. Elias could actually make a profit for once. And Barry, well Barry could have a much better time than usual at the bar. After getting settled, Barry sat down next to the captain in the wheelhouse. I began cooking our breakfast.
As I cooked, I could hear Barry making excuses for being late. Elias didn’t seem to care. He was a tough, plain-spoken man who had no gray area in his life. You were either on time or you were late. You were either a hard worker or you weren’t. He steered the conversation away from Barry.
“How’s that breakfast coming, Johnny?” the captain asked me as he worked the helm to port a few degrees. Upon hearing this, Barry came back to the galley and removed a plate from the cupboard. Elias ate in the wheelhouse, while Barry and I sat at the small table. The small talk was minimal due to the somber mood we were all feeling. In fact, I would bet not twenty words were exchanged during the whole trip out. Although the sun was starting to rise over clear skies, I couldn’t shake the feeling we were in for a beating. I wish I was wrong, but I wasn’t.
After a couple of hours, Elias decreased the throttle and nodded for us to get our rain gear on. We were at the fishing grounds, and as predicted we were nearly alone. Usually there were dozens of boats jockeying for position, but now, as the sun cleared the horizon, I counted two other boats. I suspected they would be leaving soon enough, however. I was right. We dropped our gear. Barry worked port because he was left-handed. I worked starboard. Once the gear was down, we returned to the cabin to watch our indicator bells.
I had known Barry since high school. He was a tall, lanky, native kid who was always the center of attention. He was never at a loss for words. The fact that we became friends, or remained friends for that matter, was very unlikely. I was quiet and reserved, especially back at school in Juneau. He was a year ahead of me and I really looked up to him. In fact, he was the reason I started fishing in the first place. He had come to Sitka to visit family the summer after he graduated and scored a job on a fishing boat. Once he was established, he got the captain to offer me a job as well. That was ten years and three boats ago and I loved fishing. I was reminded of this as I lowered my flashers into the water. The crisp, salty air carried the cries of seagulls and the snow-covered mountains seemed to reflect the early morning sunlight. I always felt peaceful out at sea.
Just as we had hoped, it wasn’t long before our bells started moving. Almost at the same instant, Barry and I began working our way back to the stern to raise our gear. The boat was already tossing a bit and we had a little trouble maneuvering. We managed to stumble our way to the rear of the heaving boat and dropped down into the recess we called the trolling pit.
For the next hour, Barry and I pulled in fish after fish, quickly resetting our gear. We had barely enough time to return to the boat’s cabin before the bells were going off again. We did this several times, each time celebrating and having a blast. Even through the jubilance, I silently noticed the weather deteriorating rapidly. We were definitely alone out here now. Each time I returned to the wheelhouse; I could see the growing concern on Ellias’ face. He wanted a good payday for his crew, men he considered sons, but at what cost?
“Pull the gear and stow it after this one, guys. We have to get to the island and anchor up. It’s getting bad out here,” the captain said. Barry and I didn’t argue. I had never seen weather like this. The old wooden boat tossed and pitched. So far, the weather’s deterioration was gradual, but, as we pulled the last of our gear, violent waves began breaking over the side of the boat. I was knocked down and slid from starboard to port, one side to the other. This did it for Elias.
“Get in here, now! Barry! Help him up!” he shouted, barely audible over the wind and rain. Almost instantly, imperceivable to any of us, the weather went from being an inconvenience to being downright dangerous. We clawed our way into the cabin. The first thing I noticed was the look on Elias’ face. This man was salty. He had seen the worst mother nature had to offer in his thirty years on the water. Now, however, his face showed an expression I had never seen from him. Fear. Pure, unfiltered fear. This was unsettling. I could see that Barry had noticed the look as well. He had been with Elias longer than me and I could tell this look was new to him as well.
“You two sit down and hang on to something!” he shouted over the roar. I began to get legitimately scared. This came on faster than expected. The boat was heaving. I looked over as Barry began vomiting onto the deck. Seconds later, a wave crashed into the windshield, shattering it into a spiderweb pattern, completely obstructing Elias’ vision.
“One of you guys get the sledge and get this glass out of my way. Now!” I rose to my feet and clumsily made my way to the toolbox. I grabbed the hammer and rushed to Elias. As I lifted the hammer over my head to knock the window out, the boat slammed to a stop like we hit a brick wall. Elias’s head slammed forward into the wheel and he fell lifeless. We had hit a reef or something. Alarms on the dash began screaming. Red lights began flashing. Elias lay unconscious. I was useless and Barry knew it. He sprang into action.
“Those alarms mean we are taking on water. We’re sinking, Johnny. Do you remember how to deploy the liferaft?” I nodded my head.
“Good. Get started on that. I’m gonna fire off a mayday. After you are done, come back and help me get Elias.” Barry showed surprising calm. This was reassuring. I rushed topside to work on the liferaft. Now that we were hung up and sinking, the boat was moving considerably less. I had very little trouble moving to the upper deck. Off in the distance, I could see an island. I had grabbed the binoculars on my way up. I turned them toward the island. In the chaos, I could’ve sworn I had seen a small group of people on the beach. The daylight was fading and the storm obstructed any clear view. But when I focused on them they got up, panicked, and instead of running into the woods, they rushed into the churning ocean. I shook it off as a hallucination. After tying the painter line to the True North, I deployed the liferaft. What had begun as a large, white cylinder exploded loudly into a hulking orange octagon. As I rushed back to the wheelhouse, I noticed the wind whipping more ferociously than ever. The rain had eased up, however. I slammed through the door to the main cabin just in time to hear Barry on the radio.
“Mayday, mayday, mayday. This is fishing vessel True North at coordinates unknown. Grounded near Bird Island. Taking on water. Sinking. Three crew onboard. One injured. Preparing to abandon ship!” The reason we couldn’t get our latitude and longitude numbers was that our electronic GPS had malfunctioned almost instantly. Barry and I waited for a response. There was a look of real fear on his face. Water was running down his nose. We were soaked in Alaska’s November waters and, although I don’t remember being cold, I remember Barry shivering. Nothing but static came from the radio. Barry repeated the entire broadcast verbatim. We were in the upper part of the boat and the rising water was nearly shin deep. More silence. I grabbed the handheld radio and motioned to Barry. He nodded and bent down to grab Elias’s shoulders. Just then, the static on the radio went silent as if someone was responding on the other end. Several seconds passed before a strange sound came through. A whistle. Three notes. Low, high, low. It was enough to make us both pause for a second. We disregarded this as a child playing on his father’s radio and began wrestling our lifeless captain to the raft.
Ten minutes later, after an incredible struggle, all three of us were on the liferaft. I leaned over and cut the rope that tethered us to our rapidly sinking boat. With that, we were at the mercy of the sea. Lucky for us, the wind was pushing us toward the island. I wasn’t even sure if it was Bird Island. The sun was setting rapidly behind the storm. After about thirty minutes, we slid up onto a beach. By then, it was completely dark and we were freezing.
The survival pack inside the liferaft had a tarp and fire-starting equipment. Barry tied the raft to a nearby tree and we began to make a fire and shelter. Everything was wet, but we eventually got a fire going. Barry fashioned the tarp into a lean-to. Only then did we retrieve Elias and bring him over to the fire, positioning him out of the wind. The rain had stopped. Barry began trying the radio again. He repeated the same mayday. This time he received a response.
“This is Coast Guard sector Juneau, Sitka station. We have received your distress call and are preparing a rescue ship. Do you have your exact coordinates, over?” came the stilted, almost robotic voice.
“No. Our GPS is broken. Please, our captain is in critical condition, over.” Barry pleaded.
“Just sit tight, FV True North. We will find you, over and out.” Barry was enthusiastic but something wasn’t right. The voice on the radio. It was odd. I couldn’t quite place my concern so I kept it to myself. Barry was beaming a smile. I noticed Elias moaning and writhing. I ran over to him and checked his pulse. It was weak. I knew he didn’t have much time. Barry came over to my side just as Elias stopped breathing.
“He’s dying! I’m starting CPR.” As I spoke, Barry was already on it. I began compressions and he gave the rescue breaths. This went on for twenty minutes. We alternated positions but it was no use. Our captain was gone. With tears in his eyes, Barry grabbed one of our emergency aluminum blankets and covered Elias. This was our lowest point so far. Barry began weeping. I began wondering how this all went so wrong so quickly.
We sat under our makeshift shelter for the next two hours. Periodically, Barry would grab the radio and send another mayday. Only once did we get anything resembling a response. It was the same strange whistle, low, high, low, we had received on the boat’s radio.
“Someone’s playing on the radio,” Barry said in frustration, tossing the handheld to the ground. The wind had almost stopped and the night sky was lit by a nearly full moon. I was exhausted both mentally and physically. Repeatedly, I scanned the horizon with the binoculars, flares at the ready.
“I’ll take first watch. Try to get a little rest, Johnny.” Barry said, stirring the campfire. I began to protest, but he rose his hand to silence me.
“I’ll wake you in two hours or when help arrives, whichever comes quicker.” I looked at my watch. It read 10:15. I reluctantly agreed, doubting very seriously as to whether I could sleep. I was very wrong. I must have dropped off instantly.
I was startled awake by a woman’s scream. It was unmistakable. I turned to where Barry had been but he was gone. My watch said 12:30, just after midnight. The fire was low, apparently untended since I’d been asleep. The covered body of my captain, my friend, still lay by my feet. Wearilly, I rose to my feet and grabbed the flashlight. I started toward the scream I had heard a few moments before. Resisting the urge to call for Barry out loud, I began navigating the thick brush as silently as I could. I was unarmed and my imagination was working overtime. Then, out of the pure silence, I heard a sound so bone-chilling and out of place it froze me in my tracks. A baby crying. I shook my head as if to remove the strange sound. It continued. I moved toward it. The sound led me to a spot that opened to a different beach. The storm was completely gone, lending an eerie stillness and quiet to the whole scene. What I saw at the water’s edge almost stopped my heart. A man. He turned to look my way. My brain had trouble accepting what my eyes were seeing. It was Elias. He began walking toward me.
“Captain?” I said. He didn’t answer, only continuing toward me. Other than the obvious, something about him was off. His expression was unlike anything I had ever seen on him. Vacant eyes. A smirk. Almost goofy. This was a man who had wrested his living from the harsh Alaska waters for over thirty years. There was never anything goofy about him. Also, his clothes were different. He was wearing a red and black checkered shirt, like a stereotypical lumberjack. As he approached me, I suspended all disbelief and began gushing.
“Elias! You’re ok. I thought you were dead. Barry is out here somewhere. We’ve got to….” He walked right past me, the strange expression on his face never changing. He walked in the opposite direction of our camp. He motioned for me to follow him. Even his movements were stilted and robotic. I resisted and turned toward my camp. My mind couldn’t believe what I had seen. On top of all this, Barry was still missing. I rushed back to the covered body and, with a moment’s hesitation, peeled the tarp back from the form’s face. It was Elias. Just as we left him. Upon seeing his body, coupled with the fact that I was out here alone, made me turn and vomit.
I forced myself to get a grip on the situation. I dug around for the radio. When I had it, I fired off another mayday. The static broke on the other end with the maddening sound of the baby crying again, through the radio. The world had stopped making sense. Where was the Coast Guard? They had answered our initial calls for help. Who was playing on the radio? Who did I see down by the other beach? I mindlessly stoked the fire and then I remember weeping uncontrollably. At some point, I drifted off to sleep again.
I was awakened by a bright, blinding light. Confusion and noise. After a moment, I realized the light was coming from a Coast Guard inflatable raft that was driven up onto the beach. Two men in bright orange float coats were standing over me. Their lips were moving but the world was completely silent. Slowly, my focus returned and I began to tell them my story. One man was checking my blood pressure and one was asking me questions. A third man was examining the body of Elias. I mumbled something incoherent. They had seen enough. A stretcher appeared and they began loading the body of my captain. Helping me to my feet, the coasties guided me to the raft and I could see the much larger rescue boat out in the deeper water. I finally gathered enough of my senses to start explaining what I had seen.
“There’s one more. My friend Barry is lost somewhere on the island. There are people out there. They…” I began, but the rescuer interrupted me.
“I’ll get someone to search for your friend, but you need urgent medical attention, sailor. Now please try and relax.” His military manner of speaking was infuriating. My best friend was out there on that strange, cursed rock. The more I protested, the more they restrained me. I told my story, and even to me, it sounded crazy. Delirious. I heard one of them radio to the larger boat about Barry. At least they took that seriously.
Once onboard the cutter, the medics took over. I was injected with what I can only guess was Valium or some other drug to calm me. After about an hour, a senior medic came to my room to ask me questions. I felt groggy. I told her everything that had happened to me. Much to my surprise, she didn’t seem to disbelieve me. This put me off my guard. Even I couldn’t believe what had happened to me. I finally got around to asking the question that had been at the forefront of my mind.
“Why didn’t you guys find us sooner? I mean, after our first transmission.” I asked. The female coastie looked at me in a puzzled way.
“I-I am not quite sure what you’re talking about. We never received a mayday from your vessel. The only reason we found you was the light from your fire.” she said calmly, but the confusion was evident in her voice. I had heard the Coast Guard respond personally. She seemed to steady herself and began to speak in an almost whispered tone.
“Strange things happen on these islands. I can assure you, we never received any maydays from your fishing vessel.” she said. With that, she scribbled something into her notebook and exited the room.
I was again at a loss for words. I lay back on the bed to collect my thoughts. I felt filthy. I was wearing the same clothes I had started the trip with. As I shifted on the hospital bed, I noticed something in my hip pocket. It was a folded piece of paper. Standard notebook paper, white with blue lines that were faded and runny from being wet then dried again. I felt my heart begin to race as I unfolded it. It had only one word written on it, large and roughly in the center of the page. It was Barry’s handwriting. That single word filled me with both horror and confusion. That single word was “KUSHTAKA”.
BIO: This is Matthew Damron’s first published story.