"An Amazing Boat"

  Heron

The following account was taken from a November 2011 interview with retired Auke Bay Laboratories (AFSC) biologist Jack Helle, who gained great admiration for the Heron after piloting her through a heavy storm back in 1962.

"...four of us were going to bring the Heron back down from Prince William Sound to Juneau [Alaska]... Dean Frame was the skipper... So we left Prince William Sound, and the weather was decent. We got off...Cape Hinchinbrook [in] the open ocean, and...swells [were] big and all that, but...we weren't in any storms or anything. And I think it was the second of September, so, you know, it shouldn't have been really nasty weather...no storms forecast at all. We got fairly close to Yakutat, and all of a sudden it started to get stormy. And it started really fast. And it got really stormy...Dave Bolton and I were on the wheel. I was driving and Bolton handled the radio and this kind of stuff. And we knew that the storm was...really picking up. It wasn't just going away. And we weren't sure that we could even get into Yakutat, because, you know, the water gets shallow as you approach the coast over there.

I had Dave go down and wake up the skipper and Woody Spence. And he went down there, and he came running back up, and he said, 'I'm not sure if they're...okay'. He said, 'It just smells terrible'. They were down in the bunk – in the lower bunk underneath. The wheelhouse was up here and then it went down here to a bunkhouse down in back. And he said, 'When I opened the door, the fumes in there...were just terrible, and these guys are both out.' And we were getting involved in, I mean, heavy seas. We were getting broached around and the boat was getting hit sideways, and the waves were over the top of us. And so, I said, 'Well, geez, you got to get them out of that room.'

So he got them – he drug them out of bed and got them up the stairs...to the wheelhouse. And they were literally out. I mean, they were just barely conscious... What had happened was, when we first hit the rough water, a can of engine cleaning solvent was in the engine room and fell over, and it wasn't capped... It's really strong stuff...like ether...and they were...just green looking. They were terrible. And so we got them up and they couldn't do a thing... They were starting to recover a little bit when he got them up out of the room...

We concentrated on making sure they were going to be okay and comfortable and trying to get them something, but the weather was so rough that we could hardly even navigate and move around in the boat. And between all of that, we kind of weren't sure where we were, even at that point. And then the winds got stronger and stronger and stronger. And it just got to be an awful storm. It was just horrible. And the winds were out of the northeast, and we checked the weather service. The check later on [indicated] that [it] was [an] unpredicted storm, and the winds at Yakutat were over eighty knots. And we got into this thing, and we got blown away from Yakutat... We were trying to do a compass bearing to stay between Yakutat and Icy Strait – someplace so we could make it back, and maybe it wouldn't be so bad down there, closer to land. You know, get a little bit closer to southeast where it's not so big [with] long shallow areas and stuff. And it was so bad that we couldn't do it at all...

Finally, the only thing I could do...[was] try to quarter into these waves. And then a big wave would come up and it would just broach us right over to the side, go way underneath...just sort of rocking... It was just a mess. It was horrible. And so, I finally realized that...I could not go against the waves. And not only that, but the waves weren't all coming from one direction. It would be coming like this and like this and like this, you know, just humongous swells, and not only that, they had this breaking sea all over the top of them, of course. So every time we got broached over in the trough…the sea would break over the top of us, and we'd just be water everywhere.

And I finally realized the only way that I could keep that boat alive, keep it from sinking, was to have the stern – it was a double-ender – ...facing into the wave. That's the only way that I could do it. So I'd...have to look out the back window, which I could see out, and then steer it so that I'd have the stern...perpendicular to the wave that was coming, but they were coming this way, this way, and this way. And it was huge things, and then the water would break over the top. And so you'd go down, and often, even at that, when you went down, the motor would race... You're going downhill like this into the trough, and...I thought the motor was going to blow up, just racing and whining away. And then you get down to the top and you cut right into the next wave, and it just broaches you over and up you go on. The water's pouring everywhere.

Oh, it was just...nightmarish. And I realized that I was pretty sure that we...were having a lot of trouble, and I realized that we needed to get a mayday out of some sort. So I had Dave get the radio. And we didn't have contact with anybody, and Dave was doing the radio. Finally, I said, 'Well, send out a mayday, just call a mayday out,' and he sent out a mayday, and then we got broached by this huge wave, and it took us down into the...bottom [of the trough], and Dave had the mic[rophone] in his hand, and when he got tossed over on the other side of the wheelhouse,...it broke the mic off of the radio. So, here he had a mic that wasn't attached. Not just the plug out, I mean, it was broken. So he figured out how to short out the wire in the radio with a screwdriver. So he...then put a screwdriver into the wire and he could short it out and he could talk...

Coast Guard...cutter Balsam was down off of Ketchikan, and they heard the signal. So they talked to us, and I told them our radio is busted and we're having a lot of trouble. I said we were near Yakutat and now we're going with the seas. I have no idea. I told them the direction we were going, which was...mainly west, but southwest. And I said we're headed in this direction and we can't go any other way... I tried to turn around a couple of times and you can't do it, it's too dangerous. And we were barely making it anyway... I had Dave put life jackets on Woody and Dean Frame...and we tied cans of food onto their life jackets and this sort of thing.

And the problem was, we had a life raft on this boat, one of these ones that will, if the boat sinks, it'll pop up, okay? It's a great idea, but the life boat was on the back cabin – on the roof of the cabin behind us... You didn't dare go outside of the wheelhouse, the waves were just pouring over the top. You...[would have] just gotten washed away. There was no way we could get to that lifeboat to get in it... If you got sunk and you're out at sea in the open...you'd never get to the life raft. It was hopeless.

And just when I was looking back – and this one time, the hatch was in the back part of the boat there – ...I noticed...we had just took this huge wave, and it had hit the hatch... It had broke the hatch in the back, and...this square...was wide open to the bilge and the engine room and everything, and it was about ready to go over the deck on the side. We were done if it did that. So I...told Dave, 'we got to get this.' I grabbed a rope, and I tied the rope around my waist, and I said, 'Tie this fast onto something and then hold it, as you can,' and I ran out through...the back door, and got out on the back deck with this rope attached to me. And I had just reached out and it [the hatch] was just about to go over the side, and I got the hatch there – got it in my hand – and I slammed it on the top, and I...told Dave, 'Go down underneath and see if you can make this fast someplace real quick.'

Well, meanwhile, nobody was doing anything in the boat. Those two guys were passed out up on the deck, and we were just being slammed every which way. But I barely got that thing, and we would have been done in the water right then if I hadn't gotten that hatch. And he [Dave] got under there and he was able to fix the hatch. It still had some pieces there you could attach it underneath, and they hadn't broken off totally, so we got the hatch secure.

So then we...started trying to go stern into the waves again...and re-establish contact with the Balsam down there. And they said, 'Don't do anything drastic...just do what you're doing, keep the boat afloat.' He said, 'It sounds to me like that's all you can do right now is to keep the boat from going under.' He said, 'and we've sent an aircraft out'... It's a double-prop...seaplane...an amphibious floatplane.

'We've sent one out to locate you.' And he said, 'We've got you located - on your radio beam, we've got you located on your direction. We know where you are from us. But we've having trouble getting a triangulation from anybody, because nobody from shore has been able to hear your call, and so we can't get a triangle, we don't know where you're at exactly. We know you're on this line, and we've got this airplane going out on this line toward you...'

We had to be really cautious...because we were afraid we would lose [the] radio altogether... They called us back real quick and they said, 'We got a triangulation on you from a tuna clipper that's in Yakutat, and they heard you on their radio, so we know exactly there you are. We got the plane out – headed out towards you.' And he said, 'Don't stay on the radio, just keep in contact once in awhile.' We could receive, but transmitting was the problem. So we could hear them. Finally, the plane [pilot] said...'We're close to you now.' And he said, 'What's the ceiling look like where you're at right now?' And I said, 'It's less than 500 feet, I mean, it's pretty much down here.' And I said, 'The wind has maybe slacked off some, but,' I said, 'it's still chaos out here, it's really something.' And he said, 'Okay...in five minutes you're going to see us break out from under the clouds. We'll be under the clouds and you'll see us.'

And sure enough, 5 minutes exactly, this big, two-engine plane pops out of the clouds, and it's less than 500 feet out there. And they circle around like this, and as they circle, they're going out of sight into the clouds...and they're talking to us. And they said, '...the tuna clipper that was in Yakutat decided to come out and help you.' And he said, '...they didn't want to navigate it because it was too rough, so they turned around and tried to go back to Yakutat.' He said, 'They couldn't go to Yakutat because it was too rough, so now they're out coming toward you.' And he said, 'We've got you on a collision course with this big tuna clipper.' I think it was a 180-foot vessel or some sort...

And, of course, then it was dark, pitch dark there... And he said, 'They'll have lights on the top of their masts.' We had lights, but our mast didn't go up very [high]. It wasn't much to speak of... He said, '...you'll be having radio contact with them shortly...because they're coming out to you...' 'It's getting too dark now,' he said. 'We need to head back, because we need to have visual contact with you...and we're not going to have it any more.' So they left us. And what they didn't tell us – and I found [out] later...in Yakutat, because the crew of that plane was there – was that they had a huge life raft in there [the plane] that they could have dumped out the door to us and had it inflate when it hit the water. Now that might have done some good. But he said, 'I didn't tell you that, because,' he said, 'at that time, it looked like you had the boat somewhat stabilized.' And he said, 'I didn't want you jumping off the boat into a life raft...and who knows if that would have worked or not.' So he said, 'I didn't tell you that we had that onboard. Plus we had the tuna clipper coming toward you...'

So...in the pitch night...the tuna clipper said, 'We got you on our radar and we can see you now... You'll probably be able to see our mast occasionally.' And, of course, the waves were, well, I don't know, they [the swells] were probably...30, 40, 50 feet, you know – huge things. And...we saw this little light way off in the distance and then it would disappear. And then it would come up a little bit and disappear. So that had to be it [the tuna clipper], of course.

And so they came up to us and they circled around us... And the wind had died down some, but it was still tough winds – huge seas still. He said, 'We think the best thing to do is to try to go back to Yakutat.' And I said, 'Where the hell are we, anyway?' He said, 'You are 80 miles from Yakutat. You guys got blown 80 miles off shore.' And he said, '...I want you to turn around. I'm going to give you the compass course for Yakutat, and I'm going to go ahead of you.'... We had an 'iron mic', what they call the automatic steering. That didn't work as soon as you left the inside waters. That never worked, so we didn't [have automatic steering]. It [the boat] had to be hand steered all the time.

So he said, 'I'll give you the compass course... Also, you'll be able to see my back light when we go above the swells.' He said, 'You'll be able to see that light to make sure you're on course.' And he said, 'We'll stay at a speed just to make sure that we're ahead of you aways so we don't collide or anything like that.' You don't dare, I mean, you didn't dare get close to each other out there – the violence of the waves... And, of course, they knew that. They stayed their distance, you know, never got too close. So anyway, by then I realized that we could make it if we got turned around. And actually, the plane did stay above... That's right. He said, 'I'll stay with you until you get turned around – make sure you're stable.' And so...we got turned around when the plane was there, before the tuna clipper showed up... He got us turned around and on the compass course to go collision with the tuna clipper... Then he said, 'You have the lead.' He made sure that we were able to negotiate going back again...but it was still tremendous. Just still awful out there... It was just terrible... It was just was nightmarish...

You know...it's amazing what happens to you when you have a near-death experience. You know, people think that you...just sort of lose it, and, you know, you just sort of go all 'bazoo', and it's actually the opposite of that. It's completely opposite. Both Dave and I were the same. We knew that we weren't going to make this. We knew that that was it. And all I could think about was...I was never going to see...my wife and daughter any more. And, Dave was talking about his parents... Very, very calm [attitiude]... We weren't, you know, we weren't – it wasn't – it was very, very calm. In fact, abnormally calm.

  Jack Helle
Jack Helle retired in 2008 after 49 years of service.

And so...we finally...followed that tuna clipper. We got stabilized and everything, and after what – I don't remember – 38 hours or something like that, I never left the wheel except to go back with the rope and get on the hatch. I was on the wheel all that time. And we got close to Yakutat and then finally got into Yakutat. And the aircraft crew was there, along with the tuna clipper crew, and they were telling us...that they...just tried to turn around. They couldn't get turned around. So...the Coast Guard guy, the captain, he said, 'Who was I talking to to start with out there on the radio?'... And I said, 'Well, I started talking to you when you came on,' and then I said, 'Dave handled most of it when [he] had to short out the mic with a screwdriver.' And he said, 'The thing that unnerved us up in the airplane was that how calm that you and Dave were.' He said, 'My God...for what you guys were going through...what in the world?" And I said, 'Well, I can't explain it, either.' I said, 'We didn't think we were going to make it, you know, so we were pretty sure it was over with.' And, in fact, I had my camera – that Canon 16 range-finder camera sitting up there on the thing. I never took one picture, because what's the point? It's going to go down with the ship. What's the point of taking any pictures?... But, I didn't have time anyway, because I had my hands full with the boat...

I've had a couple of other experiences like that with airplane stuff that was nothing like this. This was unbelievable...

The other thing on this Heron episode... They made me...write it up [an incident report]... And they also gave me a nice award. A Special Act Award for taking command of the ship...and bringing it to safety, and etc., and all of that... Let's see, I think I've got it written up here... A Special Act Award [May 3, 1963] from the Department of Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, for [Assuming command of the R/V Heron and manning the wheel for 30 hours and assisted by seasonal biologist David Bolton navigated the vessel to Yakutat when the vessel's Master and a crewman were incapacitated in an accident during an unpredicted very severe storm in the Gulf of Alaska, September 5-8, 1962.]...

It was really something..but, boy, that boat was an amazing boat. And sometimes you wonder if something else isn't going on, because when we took that boat from Juneau up there, we were having trouble with the engine... When we'd get out in the swells, it would move the oil over to one side of the engine, kinda, and it [the engine] would quit. And then you'd have to get back. You'd have to get kind of stabilized, and get it started, and then it would start. That engine never quit once, through all of the stuff we went out there through that storm. Got broached...you know, severely broached...covered over with water and [then] pop up... The engine never skipped a beat. And I've often wondered about that, if there wasn't somebody looking out after us... Oh, if we'd lost the engine, it was over with. It was history, yeah. Because that boat...had to stay perpendicular to the waves or it was over with..."

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