She was onboard the Alaska Ranger, a 184-foot fishing trawler in the Bering Sea, bundled up in thermal underwear and tucked into a sleeping bag on a narrow bunk bed.
From the top bunk, Gwen's cabinmate, Jay Vallee, picked up. "Hello? Hello?" There was no one there. He put down the receiver, and the phone immediately rang again. "Hello?" Still no answer.
At 38, Gwen was tall and sturdy, with huge blue eyes and dirty-blonde hair that fell in soft waves below her shoulders. Along with Vallee, 25, she was a fisheries observer—a biologist hired to work on commercial boats and gather the fish-catch numbers used to keep ocean populations sustainable. Vallee had been on the ship for three weeks, Gwen just four days. A middle-of-the-night phone call wasn't particularly unusual—Gwen imagined it was probably the first mate summoning them to the wheelhouse for a routine question.
"Or maybe it's a safety drill," she thought as she pulled herself out of bed, slid into the knee-high rubber boots she always wore on the ship, and headed up one level to the wheelhouse.
As Gwen approached the top deck, the general alarm, a high-pitched ringing, sounded throughout the ship. Outside, the temperature was 15°F, and the wind whipped across the ice-covered deck at nearly 40 miles per hour. The ship's second-in-command, David Silveira, stood at the top of the staircase. During two previous seasons, Gwen had worked with the 50-year-old former tuna fisherman on another boat, the Alaska Pioneer, where they spent hours together in the wheelhouse, chatting and watching porpoises and whales. Silveira had decades of experience; captaining the Pioneer was his normal gig, and he was known for his calm demeanor. But now his face was awash with fear. Gwen knew that something was terribly wrong.
Silveira turned to Gwen. "This is bad," he said. "This is really, really bad."
"You're not running a drill?" Gwen asked.
"No. The ship is flooding."
Even as a kid growing up in landlocked Marshall, Arkansas, Gwen was crazy about fish. Her favorite TV shows were documentaries about whales, and she loved nothing more than a Saturday out on a lake, angling for catfish with her grandfather in his flat-bottomed skiff. One of Gwen's favorite childhood memories is from that boat: "Grandpa took me fishing, and it started thundering. But that's when we really started catching fish. So he said, 'If you promise not to tell your mom and grandma I kept you out on the boat in the storm, we'll stay and fish.' And I never did."
When Gwen was 13, she saved up to buy a 55-gallon aquarium, then filled it with tetras, guppies, and angelfish. Science was her best subject, and she dreamed of being a research biologist, but as a Jehovah's Witness, she'd grown up hearing the church preach against the corrupting influences of college. She dropped out of high school after her sophomore year, settled for a GED, got married at 18, and had her first child a couple of years later.
By the time she was 29, Gwen was living in Texas, married to an electrician, and chasing after four kids under the age of 8. The marriage floundered. Gwen put down $3,000 cash for a mobile home back in Marshall and moved in with the kids and several aquariums. She had left the Jehovah's Witnesses a few years earlier, and by the time the divorce papers arrived in the mail, she was already enrolled in college.
"It was by far the worst boat I'd ever set foot on"
A year after she earned her biology degree, Gwen saw a posting for the Alaska fisheries job on Monster.com. "The drawback was, I had to be away from home for months at a time," she says. But the job seemed the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, to be out on the ocean, conducting actual biology fieldwork. And it was decent money: $130 a day to start, with a $20-a-day raise each time she completed 90 days of work. Gwen's ex-husband agreed to take the kids, although not without berating her, in front of them, for being selfish.
Gwen was torn but decided to go—her dream was finally within reach. She'd travel to Alaska for three months at a time, working alongside a crew of fishermen, many of them recent immigrants, roughnecks, and ex-cons, during the summer and winter fishing seasons. After each stint, she'd present her data to the National Marine Fisheries Service in Seattle, then take a few months off before heading north again.
"Mayday. Mayday. Mayday. Mayday. This is the Alaska Ranger." Gwen stood in the wheelhouse listening in as Silveira made the first call to the coast guard. "We are a factory trawler," he reported. "We're 184 feet in length, black hull, white trim." It was 2:46 A.M.; the ship was about 140 miles west of the nearest fishing port, Dutch Harbor, in the Aleutian Islands, and 920 miles west of Kodiak, Alaska, where the coast guard picked up the call.
Over her fleece jacket, fleece pants, long johns, and wool socks, Gwen had already pulled on her bright red neoprene survival suit, designed to keep her dry even if she ended up submerged. She looked around at the crew members. A handful wore only shorts and T-shirts, and some were barefoot as they pulled on their survival suits.
The Ranger was a 35-year-old trawler. Each day the crew dropped a massive net into the ocean, dragged it along the bottom until it was full of fish, pulled it back up, and then beheaded, gutted, and froze the fish (most often yellowfin sole, Pacific Ocean perch, and Atka mackerel) onboard. Every time she boarded a new boat, Gwen was required to fill out a standardized safety checklist, provided by the National Marine Fisheries Service, to ensure that the ship had the required survival equipment and was safe enough for the observers to sail on. She had walked the Ranger with her checklist in hand and noted that its fire extinguishers were in poor condition, and that some of the watertight doors designed to stop flooding from one compartment to the next did not seal properly. "It was by far the worst boat I'd ever set foot on," Gwen remembers. Still, none of the problems she noticed were what her form called "no go" items—missing safety equipment that would prevent a government employee like her from heading out to sea.
"My very next thought was: 'Oh, no, I am not dying today. I am living and I am getting off this boat'"
By now they all knew the horrid truth: The nearest ship was hours away. Less than 50 minutes after the first alarm, waves were already cresting over the stern, which was riding low in the water. Gwen heard the engineers discussing the possibility of being towed in. Too late, one of them said. The boat was sinking fast.
The engines started sputtering and gurgling. Gwen had never heard such terrible noises—her life depended on those engines. As the lights flickered overhead, she realized, "I'm going to have to get into the water. I am going to have to abandon this ship into a freezing, pitch-black sea in the middle of the night." The scene played out like a video in her mind: A stranger was telling her kids how she'd died on the boat. "I could not only see but actually feel their grief," Gwen recalls. "But then my very next thought was: 'Oh, no, I am not dying today. I am living and I am getting off this boat.'" Then Gwen said a simple prayer, familiar words she'd repeated at many difficult times in her life: "God, please grant me the calmness, clarity, and courage to get out of this alive."
Soon after, the boat went dark. Then, inexplicably, it started backing up, moving at full speed astern into the icy waves. "The engines are going in reverse!" Silveira yelled. Because the Ranger had been built as a supply vessel for oil platforms, it was designed to quickly back away from a platform during an emergency rather than ram into it. But the ship's top officers—almost all new to the boat—seemed unfamiliar with its unusual mechanics. The already low stern deck was now plowing into the waves, scooping up water like a shovel.
Gwen was still inside the wheelhouse when the Ranger took a violent list starboard. The mood out on the icy deck, which had until now been tense but calm, suddenly erupted into chaos. Men felt the floor drop out from under them and lunged for the metal rails as the boat plunged sideways toward the sea. "Hang on!" some shouted, as a couple of crew members slid straight down the deck, through the rails, and into the frigid ocean.
"Abandon ship!" Silveira ordered. "Abandon ship!"
Everyone on deck began running for the life rafts. Gwen was assigned to the No. 2 raft, one of three 20-person circular crafts with peaked, tent-like canopies that guard against the elements. A blast of Arctic air hit her as she shuffled awkwardly in her survival suit across the slippery deck to the ship's rail, where she found the life raft canister covered in ice. Gwen struggled to pull a pin to release and inflate the rubber raft, then watched as it swung down toward the waves, hit the surface, and disappeared into the blackness. She grabbed at the 118-foot-long line that held the raft to the ship, but suddenly it went slack. The line had snapped. The raft was gone.
"Oh my God...It's so far down"
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..."
Outside, the waves were raging, causing the raft to pitch and jolt. To make matters worse, Gwen was racked with seasickness. "I felt like I was literally trying to throw up my stomach," she says. She wasn't the only one. At one point more than half the people in the raft were vomiting straight into the water they were all sitting in.
After more than a half hour, someone heard yelling from outside. When the men opened the tent's plastic flap, there was a fisherman in the water. They pulled him onboard—his face was gray, his body shaking, his suit full of water. "He's freezing to death," Gwen said. She watched three Japanese crew members prop him upright to keep him awake, amazed they managed to stay balanced on the waterbed-like floor as the raft rolled in the two-story waves.
When Gwen heard the first buzz of a helicopter overhead, after 5 A.M., she knew the rescuers would look first for any men still in the water and could only hope the chopper crew would spot her raft as well. She thought about seeing her kids. The last time she'd spoken to them, phoning from the dock two days before, it had been for only an instant—just enough time to say, "I love you." Over and over, she repeated to herself: "I am not going to die. I am going home."
Suddenly, the group heard an unfamiliar noise outside the raft. A crew member opened the tent door, and Gwen saw that they had banged right up against the metal hull of another fishing boat, the Alaska Warrior. "We were actually on the hull before I knew the Warrior was anywhere around," Gwen recalls. "I mean, that mother's loud, but the waves were breaking so hard and the wind was howling so much, we didn't even hear it inside the life raft."
She watched as two guys from her raft flung themselves at lines hanging from the ship and started to scramble up. Gwen knew she didn't have the strength to do the same thing, but she was afraid to stay much longer in the raft. "The water was slamming us into the side of the Warrior. I thought, 'Oh my God, I've lived through all this and now the Warrior's gonna crush us.'"
Then the Japanese man who'd helped Gwen motioned for her to come toward him. The rescue ship lowered a ring-shaped lifesaving sling; the man slipped it around Gwen's chest. A crane hoisted her up into the night air and placed her gently onto the Warrior's ice-coated deck, where she collapsed. "I didn't even care if I got up at that point. I was like, 'This deck feels good!'" Gwen recalls. One of the Warrior's crew members carried her into the galley. "I heard people screaming my name. It was the observers on the Warrior and Jay, my co-observer. As soon as I saw him, I just started crying."
Nearly two years later, back home with her kids, Gwen flips through a box of photos and clippings, and pulls out a picture of herself from her first year in Alaska. She's on the deck of a small boat next to an enormous bin of just-caught fish, dressed in orange rain gear, and smiling broadly as she grasps a two-foot halibut in her hands. She looks content remembering the moment, but tears up when talk turns to the Alaska Ranger and David Silveira.
The Alaska Warrior rescued 22 people from two life rafts, most with only minor scrapes and traumas, and delivered them less than a day later to Dutch Harbor. Twenty-one more survivors were individually airlifted from the freezing waves by two coast guard helicopters, which delivered them to the Munro, a coast guard cutter that had been sprinting toward the disaster site since the Ranger's first Mayday call. Silveira, who was also pulled from the water by the coast guard, was one of five crew members who didn't make it. When they hauled up his body, his survival suit was full of water, perhaps because it was ripped or damaged. Most likely, he suffered from hypothermia, passed out, and drowned. Gwen was on the Warrior when the news came that he'd died, and she was distraught. "The other fishermen kept coming up to me, going, 'It's okay, you're okay, you're not hurt.' And I was like, 'I am hurt. I'm hurt because my friend died. I'm not okay.'"
Soon after her rescue, Gwen called her family from the ship to let them know she was all right, but she had to remain in Alaska for ten days to provide information for the coast guard investigation. Six months later, Gwen was at home when a friend e-mailed her a story about another Alaskan fishing boat that sank; among the seven dead were two men Gwen had worked with up north. By then, Gwen already knew she was not going back. "I had a hard time of it after I came home. I had panic attacks. I became a worrywart—supervigilant about everything." She saw a counselor for 18 months, but ultimately, she says, it was prayer that got her through the grief.
Was it worth it—risking everything for a dream? "That job fulfilled me more than anything," she says. "I can still close my eyes and take myself back to some of my favorite moments out there. The first time I saw a pod of whales, I stood on deck with tears running down my face. Some people live their whole lives and never experience anything they enjoy so much."
Gwen pauses—convinced, it seems, of the inevitability of her choice. "Being an observer wasn't just a job," she says. "It was the first thing I ever did that was almost just for me." Happily, her next pursuit is only slightly less watery: She hopes to get a master's degree in ichthyology—the study of fish—and eventually teach marine biology. Despite her harrowing experience, the determination that first brought Gwen to Alaska has survived.
9 more life-changing big adventures
Kalee Thompson is the author of Deadliest Sea: The Untold Story Behind the Greatest Rescue in Coast Guard History