Commercial fishing is the most dangerous job in the United States, with an annual death rate more than 18 times higher than that for firemen. But unlike many fishermen, as a government observer Gwen had been given hands-on safety training: She had practiced swimming in her survival suit, as well as getting in and out of a life raft, in a pool at a local university in Anchorage. The lessons she'd learned came back to her now.
Some men leaped overboard in a panic, but Gwen knew never to leave a sinking boat until absolutely necessary, and then to do everything possible to get straight into a life raft. She made her way back to the starboard rail. The Ranger's two remaining rafts had been launched from that side of the ship, but because it was moving in reverse, they had been dragged beyond the bow like inner tubes behind a water-ski boat.
Although it was dark, the ship was coated in a thin sheet of ice, and Gwen could make out the deck and rails gleaming in the moonlight. She stared down at the water. The waves were huge: close to 20 feet and breaking. It was still windy, and well below freezing, and it was at least a 15-foot drop from the deck to the ocean's surface. "Oh my God," Gwen thought. "It's so far down." She was scared, but she knew she had to get off the boat now, before another life raft disappeared. She grabbed a line leading to a raft, hoping to shimmy down it into the water and make her way to the tented craft. Almost immediately, she lost her grip and plunged into the swells.
She bobbed up, spit out a mouthful of saltwater, and started swimming—two breaststrokes. It was an automatic response. But again, Gwen thought back to her instructors' warnings: "Do not attempt to swim in the Bering Sea. It will only sap your energy and your body heat." So Gwen lay back in the water in her buoyant survival suit, crossed her arms and legs—the best position, she recalled, for conserving heat—and took two deep breaths.
When she looked up, she realized that the line from the ship to the raft was stretched taut just a foot overhead. She grabbed it and began pulling herself hand over hand to the raft, where a Ranger crew member reached out to her. It was a Japanese man; he spoke almost no English, but Gwen remembered his friendly smile. He grabbed onto her suit, and with one strong yank, pulled her up and in.
Within minutes, 11 people had made it into the tented raft, whose floor was already close to a foot deep in frigid water. The raft was equipped with a survival pack, which Gwen knew included signal flares, drinking water, an emergency blanket, and seasickness medication, but one of the first men to reach the raft had ripped it open, and now the contents were lost in the murky water. There was also a small bilge pump, but no one could get it to work.
Gwen looked at the men around her. After less than a week on the ship, she knew only one, assistant engineer Rodney Lundy, by name. Four of the men were Japanese; several others spoke Spanish. Most had their eyes closed, and some were shivering, already suffering the early stages of hypothermia. No one was talking, but Gwen could see the clouds of their warm breath.
"Where are the flares? We need the flares!" Gwen yelled to the men over the roar of the breaking seas; she knew they should have the signal devices ready to activate as soon as they heard a search plane overhead. There was no answer. Gwen tried again to make the men listen. "We need the flares!" she repeated. No response.
"He's freezing to death..."
We Hear You!