A kayak trip to Woody Island on a sunny, beautiful day turned into a rescue operation this past week as first one kayaker and then his companion went into the frigid water, and despite their best efforts, could not get back to shore.
Jim Cratty, pastor at the Kodiak Lighthouse Baptist Church, with youth pastor Wes Stafford, paddled over to Woody Island Saturday to make plans for a camp scheduled to begin there June 7.
Cratty said after they spent a couple of hours on Woody Island, the weather changed. The wind picked up and it became difficult to launch the kayaks in the 2- to 3-foot surf.
While Cratty was able to get past the surf and into open water, Stafford’s kayak swamped in the surf, giving him the first dousing of cold water. Cratty called for Stafford to head to shore but couldn’t be heard over the wind and the breakers. Before Cratty could return, Stafford had cleared the surf and the two continued to Trident Basin.
Tide changes just then also contributed to a 2- to 3-foot chop, rescuers said.
As the kayakers got about 300 yards off shore, Cratty heard a yell from Stafford, who now had flipped his kayak over and was in the chilling water, estimated by harbormaster Marty Owen to be about 38 degrees. Cratty tried to help Stafford back into his kayak and had gotten him back on top of it when it flipped again, sending Cratty into the water as well. Both kayakers had life jackets on.
Cratty said the current and the wind were too strong to get back to shore.
At first Charlie and Laurene Madsen didn’t know exactly what they were seeing.
They were at their home on Woody Island, a weekend getaway they inherited from Charlie’s father and which they’ve been restoring.
It was only when they walked down to the beach that they realized the two kayakers they had been watching were in distress.
Not having a boat to use to help the kayakers themselves, Laurene made the initial emergency call to the Kodiak Police Department (KPD) dispatch, relaying the information of where the kayakers were.
Later, as precious minutes passed, Charlie called dispatch, too, and they continued updates on the rescue progress.
The couple walked down the beach, tracking the kayakers as the current swept them by. Charlie estimated they walked about half a mile before rescuers arrived.
Cratty had an iPhone in his pocket protected from getting wet by a plastic bag. He called 911 and received a busy signal as the dispatch lines were taken up coordinating the rescue. With his wife out of town, he called Stafford’s wife, Natalie, to put out a call for help. She contacted a member of the Coast Guard.
Meanwhile, Kodiak harbor officers had received a call from KPD dispatch to respond to Woody Island for kayakers in the water.
“The harbor staff is not really trained in search and rescue,” Owen said.
It’s not really their mission, he said, but when nobody else has a boat available, the harbor staff are the ones called.
A boat owned by the Alaska State Troopers was tied up at the time, Owen said.
Harbor officer Ryan Emmert rounded up the only boat they could use, a little Boston whaler usually reserved for towing. It’s not a boat intended to effect a rescue, though it did have some rescue equipment on board.
The boat is an antique, Owen said, and struggles to even move.
“It can’t get up on plane even with 150 horsepower,” he said. “It needs to be replaced.”
Emmert then picked up harbor officer Zack Keplinger from St. Herman Harbor.
“By that time KPD did advise us that they were in the water for 15 minutes,” Keplinger said.
They were also told that an Alaska State Trooper was en route to accompany them in the rescue, but they chose not to wait for him.
“I said, ‘No, we need to get out there,’” Keplinger said. “‘We need to get these guys in the boat and get them out of the water as soon as possible.’
“As a Kodiak born-and-raised kid, especially being a fisherman, I know you’ve got a limit of about 30 minutes, no matter what time of year it is,” Keplinger said. “In the winter time it’s shorter, but in the summer you have about 30 minutes and then you start losing all extremities. Eventually your body shuts down.”
As they motored out of the channel between Kodiak city and Near Island, the harbor officers arranged with dispatch to have the emergency response crews and the trooper meet them on the spit at the water float.
“It’s the most universal spot to have emergency personnel show up and the most universal spot where everyone knows where they are going,” Keplinger said.
With the information from the Madsens, dispatch told the harbor officers right where the kayakers were, right off one of the red buoys on the front of Woody Island.
But after rounding a green buoy and heading toward the location, the harbor officers encountered one of the abandoned kayaks.
“All I saw at first was the kayak and I was thinking at the time maybe we weren’t going to find the bodies right off the bat,” Emmert said.
Keplinger was thinking the same thing.
“Please don’t tell me they fell in the water and they aren’t floating on the kayaks anymore,” he thought.
Then, rounding the corner of the island, they saw Cratty and Stafford laying across the other kayak in a bed of kelp about 50 yards from shore and 100 yards from the Woody Island Dock.
Cratty said they were getting cold fast and Stafford had been in the water longer than Cratty.
“He could hardly hold on any longer,” Cratty said. “I think another five minutes would have been disastrous.”
Emmert said that Stafford just looked like death.
“He had white rings around his eyes,” Emmert said. “He was just white pale.”
“As soon as I grabbed him, he was cold,” Keplinger said. “I dragged him into the boat. Wes just flopped on the deck and tried to start falling asleep on us, so Ryan did a good job shaking him and talking to him and keeping him awake on the ride back to town.”
When the rescue mission returned to the water float on the spit, emergency crews were waiting to attend the hypothermic kayakers.
Cratty said he took the ambulance ride but didn’t need to be checked into the hospital. Stafford, however, was in worse shape and remained in the hospital for four hours as he warmed back up.
“It could have been a bad Saturday for our church, losing the whole pastoral staff,” Cratty said. “I’m really thankful to the two guys who picked us up.”
After pulling the people out of the water, the harbor officers later went back and picked up the swamped kayaks as well.
Mirror writer Wes Hanna can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.