For an Alaskan fishing industry with an improving safety record, the sinking of the Scandies Rose was a devastating loss. It also began an astonishing tale of endurance.
On the lumbering journey through squally seas off the Alaska Peninsula, most of the seven crab fishermen aboard the Scandies Rose were resting in bunks on New Year's Eve when the boat suddenly began listing to the starboard side.
The crew rushed to the cramped wheelhouse and quickly began distributing survival suits, but before they could fully get them on, the boat pitched over so far that they were sliding along the floor. Then the power went out. Two of the crewmen, Dean Gribble Jr. and Jon Lawler, managed to pull themselves out onto the tilted deck, where, through the murk of a north Pacific night, the reality of their situation became clear.
The boat was being tossed in every direction by 6 metre swells and was sinking fast. Gale-force winds were crusting the ship's surfaces with ice. Any chance of rescue was 270 storm-churned kilometres away.
Gribble could see that he and his shipmate did not have long to live. He shouted to Lawler over the din of wind and groaning steel, "I wonder what everyone else is doing for New Year's Eve."
The waters off Alaska and its chain of Aleutian Islands are home to some of the most productive fisheries in the world and have long drawn fishermen willing to brave the unforgiving seas to capture the bounty below. The daredevil days of the 1970s, when the race to catch seafood could leave dozens of fishermen dead each year, have given way to a culture that increasingly emphasises safety, with catch limits, stability checks and survival gear.
Yet fishing remains the nation's second most dangerous profession, next to logging. The ocean off Alaska brings stories, as it always has, of horrendous tragedy and harrowing survival. And sometimes, like the agonising tale of the Scandies Rose, it brings both at the same time.
A crew seasoned by tragedy
The crew had departed from Kodiak the day before, snacking on take-and-bake pizza and resting for the gruelling hours of work ahead.
A 40 metre boat based in Seattle, the Scandies Rose was a seasoned ship backed by an experienced crew. It was loaded with stacks of pots to catch cod before moving on to the more lucrative target: 272,000kg of snow crab.
As the boat headed into stormy weather, the conditions were nothing the Scandies Rose could not handle — or had not handled before.
The captain was Gary Cobban Jr., from a well-known fishing family in Kodiak. His son, David Cobban, was also in the crew. The other men who signed up to go — Brock Rainey, Seth Rousseau-Gano, Arthur Ganacias and Lawler — were also experienced fishermen.
Looking for a final crew member in the days before departure, Lawler had called Gribble, who travelled up from the Seattle area to join them. Gribble had also grown up in the world of fishing. Like the others, he knew the risks. During one of his first seasons, he and his father helped find the body of a fisherman who died in the Bering Sea in 2005 in the sinking of the Big Valley — a tragedy immortalised in the reality television series Deadliest Catch.
The efforts to make the industry safer, and to help preserve threatened fisheries in the Bering Sea, have included an overhaul of how many boats are licensed to fish. That has meant that there are now fewer ships at sea at any one time, leaving those who fish in the Alaska winter much more alone.
As the Scandies Rose sank, its life rafts were unreachable, stowed in containers at the top of the wheelhouse, which was already dipping toward the water line.
Gribble and Lawler, standing by now on the upturned side of the boat, finished donning their orange survival suits and braced themselves as the waves sloshed higher.
"OK, here it comes. Here it is. We're going in," Gribble shouted. "We're staying together, bro."
A large wave smashed across the boat and cast them into the water, ending any hope of staying together.
Alone in the roiling water, Gribble gasped for air and expected that death was imminent. Water had seeped into his immersion suit. He wondered what the best course was when all hope seemed lost. Do you suck in seawater to try and meet fate sooner? Do you wait for hypothermia to overtake you?
He watched the bow of the Scandies Rose, now sticking straight up in the air, go under.
Then, perhaps 10 minutes later, he saw a light in the distance: One of the life rafts had come loose from the boat and emerged from the sea. He swam to it, pushed along by the swells, and pulled himself in.
Once aboard, he tried to make his voice heard above the crashing waves and finally heard a voice in return. It was Lawler, who managed to work his way to the raft.
Rising and falling hopes
The centre of the raft, which was designed to hold eight people under an orange canopy with reflector strips, was filled with 1 metre of water. Soon after the men had pulled themselves in, the raft's lights went out.
They fired off a couple of flares, though they had little hope that anyone would see them. There was no beacon to broadcast their location.
The most immediate challenge was bracing the raft through the tumultuous waves that kept coming, so they leaned outward onto the octagonal sides. Off in the distance, they occasionally caught a glimpse of what appeared to be the lights of the Scandies Rose's other life raft.
In the frigid air — -12C, with strong winds — Gribble began dunking himself in the pool of water in the raft, which felt warmer. Presently, though, ice began forming on their suits and on the raft.
The men distracted each other by making plans for the future: Gribble was getting ready for marriage, Lawler was preparing for the birth of his first child. "God can't take me now," he thought as he stuck his head out of the raft looking for signs of rescue.
"We're not dying — we're not dying," they told each other. But, as minutes on the boat turned to hours, they didn't really believe it.
Some 270km away in Kodiak, Coast Guard rescue crews had received the mayday call from the Scandies Rose. But though the fishing boat was equipped with an emergency beacon to broadcast a more precise location, it had not done so, perhaps because it was caught on the sinking vessel.
A Coast Guard crew gathered to set up a rescue plan and then, half an hour before midnight — 90 minutes after the mayday call — the four-member crew set off in an MH-60 helicopter. Worried that fuel might be a problem, with so far to fly against a strong headwind, they limited their use of heat in the cabin.
It took 2 1/2 hours to reach the scene, according to the Coast Guard's timeline, and when they arrived, the conditions were formidable: minimal visibility, gusts of wind approaching 95km/h, seas as high as 9 metres.
Soon after arriving, the pilots spotted some faint lights and a raft among the waves.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Evan Grills, a 24-year-old aviation survival technician, prepared to drop down into the darkness. As he got to the door of the helicopter, the wind hit him, as did the rotor wash, as did his nerves.
This was his first rescue mission.
Much of his training as a rescue swimmer had been in swimming pools. A Florida native, he had come to Alaska last year for more training, but none of it came close to the conditions he was now looking at.
"This is happening," he thought. "I've got to go down there."
Hitting the water, he swam to the raft and climbed in.
It was empty. He climbed out of the raft and swam around the sides, then went back aboard one more time to make sure. Still nothing.
Light in the distance
Disappointed, Grills returned to the helicopter and sat in shock. Then he got a tap on the shoulder. The pilots had spotted another raft.
The two fishermen had seen the light of the helicopter approaching in the distance. To them, it had appeared to be a ship, so they groped around for the last flare that had been floating in their raft, diving into the pool of water to feel for it — to no avail.
They grabbed a flashlight and a light on one of the survival suits, hoping to signal the ship.
Then, as its light grew closer, the men realised it was a helicopter.
As the Coast Guard crew approached the second raft, the pilots warned that they had no more than 20 to 30 minutes left on scene before dwindling fuel would force them to head back to base.
Grills dropped once again, but winds jostled the helicopter. The steel rescue cable, with Grills at the end of it, began swinging.
Using hand signals, he worked with the flight mechanic to move up and down, timing the moves with the surging seas, at times getting dunked in seawater. After several attempts, he was able to drop right next to the raft. Lawler jumped in the water to begin the hoist.
As Gribble took his turn, he looked over to his rescuer and offered a grateful half-joke: "What took you guys so long?"
Searching for others, and for answers
By the time both survivors had been retrieved, the helicopter had to rush back to Kodiak. As the Coast Guard shuttled Gribble and Lawler to a hospital to be treated for hypothermia, officers dispatched a steady rotation of aircraft to look for any more survivors.
They searched over a span of 20 hours, covering 3,600 square kilometres, before suspending the operation.
After Gribble and Lawler arrived at the hospital, the Cobbans family gathered there. The captain's sister, Gerry Cobban Knagin, went in to meet the men who returned, resolving to hug both of them before asking about the rest of the crew.
The family knew then that Cobban, his son and the others had not made it.
Their job now was to help those who had survived. They made sure the two men had food, clothing and phones to reach their loved ones.
Another sister, Deanna Cobban, said her brother had done his job as skipper, getting out a mayday call that gave the crew a chance at survival. It was up to the community on land to care for those who returned.
"That's the job of the shore-based people — you do whatever that crew needs," Deanna Cobban said. "We took care of them until we got them on the plane to go home."
Written by: Mike Baker
Photographs by: Grant Hindsley
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES