Enjoy millions of ebooks, audiobooks, magazines, and more, with a free trial

Only $11.99/month after trial. Cancel anytime.

Coming Back Alive: The True Story of the Most Harrowing Search and Rescue Mission Ever Attempted on Alaska's High Seas
Coming Back Alive: The True Story of the Most Harrowing Search and Rescue Mission Ever Attempted on Alaska's High Seas
Coming Back Alive: The True Story of the Most Harrowing Search and Rescue Mission Ever Attempted on Alaska's High Seas
Ebook323 pages6 hours

Coming Back Alive: The True Story of the Most Harrowing Search and Rescue Mission Ever Attempted on Alaska's High Seas

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars



Read preview

About this ebook

When the fishing vessel La Conte sinks suddenly at night in one-hundred-mile-per-hour winds and record ninety-foot seas during a savage storm in January 1998, her five crewmen are left to drift without a life raft in the freezing Alaskan waters and survive as best they can.

One hundred fifty miles away, in Sitka, Alaska, an H-60 Jayhawk helicopter lifts off from America's most remote Coast Guard base in the hopes of tracking down an anonymous Mayday signal. A fisherman's worst nightmare has become a Coast Guard crew's desperate mission. As the crew of the La Conte begin to die one by one, those sworn to watch over them risk everything to pull off the rescue of the century.

Spike Walker's memoir of his years as a deckhand in Alaska, Working on the Edge, was hailed by James A. Michner as "masterful . . . will become the definitive account of this perilous trade, an addition to the literature of the sea." In Coming Back Alive, Walker has crafted his most devastating book to date. Meticulously researched through hundreds of hours of taped interviews with the survivors, this is the true account of the La Conte's final voyage and the relationship between Alaskan fishermen and the search and rescue crews who risk their lives to save them.

Release dateOct 11, 2002
Read preview

Spike Walker

Spike Walker spent nine seasons as a crewman aboard some of the most successful crab boats in the Alaskan fleet. While "working on the edge," the crewmen's term for laboring in the brutal outer reaches of the Bering Sea, Spike encountered 110-mph winds, rode out one of the worst storms in Alaska's history, worked nonstop for seventy-four hours without sleep, participated in record catches of king crab, saw ships sink, helped rescue their crews, and had close friends die at sea.  In addition to his crab-fishing experience, Spike Walker has worked in the offshore oilfields of Louisiana and Texas; along the Mississippi River as a certified, commercial deep-sea diver; and in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Alaska as a logger. He is the author of several works of nonfiction, including Working on the Edge, Nights of Ice, and Coming Back Alive.

Read more from Spike Walker

Related to Coming Back Alive

Related ebooks

Related articles

Reviews for Coming Back Alive

Rating: 3.3529411764705883 out of 5 stars

17 ratings2 reviews

What did you think?

Tap to rate

Review must be at least 10 words

  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    *** Contains multiple spoilers. ** Walker celebrates the Coast Guard SAR (Search and Rescue — not to be confused with SARS) teams that operate in Alaska's forbidding winters. These people risk their lives to save those who have usually made some really dumb decisions. Flying at any time in Alaska is difficult because of the terrain and sudden weather changes, but virtually no one flies at night. SAR teams are often called out at night and usually in the worst weather. Sensory deprivation is common, especially in the whiteout conditions of blizzards, when pilots can only depend on their fluorescent radar screens and instruments to keep them from "a controlled collision with terrain." The other members of the team, a flight mechanic, a rescue swimmer, and a navigator often make the difference between life and death. One such team was returning to base after having successfully rescued the survivors of a plane crash. The pilot was a newcomer to the area and had just made a ninetydegree course correction when "his navigator, who was seated behind him, suddenly inquired, 'Hey, is there a reason we're flying at only sixteen feet?'"

    About half the book is dedicated to a truly extraordinary rescue. A fishing boat with five crewmen had been caught in a fierce, very fierce winter storm. (The crew had warned the captain to leave the area earlier, but he wanted to collect as much of his fishing gear as possible and ignored their warnings, a decision that would cost him his life.) Soon their boat was being tossed around by one-hundred-foot seas and nasty rogue waves that could come from any direction. The wind chill approached 100 degrees below zero. The boat soon foundered, but the men were able to don their survival suits, and to tie themselves together to the EPIRB, a floating emergency beacon that had a strobe light and radio transmission that could be picked up by satellite. They struggled to stay alive in the freezing water until the first SAR chopper arrived. It was pitch dark, and only the strobe light of the beacon helped the SAR team to find them. The Coast Guard team maneuvered for almost two hours, fighting against tremendous winds and waves that would occasionally tower over the helicopter, forcing them to rapidly rise before being inundated. The basket kept being blown toward the back of the chopper at risk of becoming entangled in the tail rotor blades. Finally, low on fuel and with the flight mechanic, whose job it was to control the metal basket they were trying to lower, suffering from hypothermia, they were forced to turn back. A second rescue chopper was dispatched to no avail. The waves were so high and the wind so strong that getting a basket anywhere near those in the water was impossible. Again they were forced to return to base. By this time, the men had been in the water for many hours and one man had slipped off the rope and died. The boat's skipper was unconscious, being held up by one of the crewmen, ironically a former coast guardsman, someone familiar with survival techniques. By the time a third chopper arrived, the situation was desperate. A C-130 was flying high overhead to relay messages, since the atmosphere was so turbulent their signals could not get through. This SAR team, benefiting from the insights gained information relayed by the first rescue crew, brought extra flares and an extra crewman to help with the winch. The base commander, the only other available pilot, was flying in the co-pilot's seat. After seeing how difficult things were for the pilot to try to maintain position, he hit upon an inspiration. He would manipulate the collective, the device that controls the helicopter's altitude, while the other pilot flew the machine. It went against everything they had been taught and trained, but was precisely what was needed. It relieved the pilot of one extra duty, and he could now concentrate on the directions of the flight mechanic. Tragically, as they lifted two of the survivors from the water, the skipper, who had regained consciousness and was being held on to the side of the basket, fell off and drowned. His body was recovered later by a rescue swimmer from yet another chopper. Three men were saved. The story of the rescue and the odds against it was spellbinding. I could not put the book down.
  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
    This is a fascinating account of a harrowing rescue attempt in appalling conditions in the Gulf of Alaska. While the story is an amazing one, it is hindered a bit in its telling by the author, who is (if memory serves) an Alaskan crab fisherman by trade. As such, his knowledge of his subject material is excellent, but the mechanics of the writing do leave something to be desired. Nonetheless, if you are interested in these sorts of stories, by all means this is worth reading.

Book preview

Coming Back Alive - Spike Walker


In the fall of 1998, I moved to Alaska and began the research for this book. From the outset, my intent, as a nonfiction writer, was to present a vivid, unflinching portrait of the legendary exploits of Sitka’s elite, handpicked search and rescue helicopter squads, as well as the lives and experiences of the commercial fishermen they encountered along the way.

To come to know the Coast Guard commanders and pilots and their crews over the months I spent, tape recorder in hand, dogging their trails out at the base on the tip of Japonski Island, was a pleasure I will not soon forget. Drawing me into the warm camaraderie of their fellowship, they helped me sweep out the cobwebs of bitterness and suspicion that had crept in, and replace them, I am told, with a bit of the same graciousness that had been so generously granted me.

Then, as the months of interviewing slipped past, and the exceptional nature of the material gleaned from both Coast Guard crewmen and fishermen began to surface, I felt a growing sense of responsibility to try to honor the robust way these passionate people lived and, far too often, died.

In an effort to remain loyal to the spirit of the adventures undertaken, I decided to relate several key events by telling them through the eyes of those who were there, re-creating them just as they happened.

While some of the material herein is quite graphic in nature, it is my fervid hope that by writing about these events, similar predicaments in which young men die may be avoided altogether in the future, and that the soul-shaking grief and sense of utter aloneness felt by those left behind may one day be transcended.

Book I

Flyboys and Fishermen


As he steered his speeding twenty-six-foot gillnet boat Marlene out across the Copper River Delta in Alaska’s Prince William Sound on a gray, windblown afternoon in 1981, Skip Holden could not have known that within hours he would be engaged in a hellish struggle just to survive, nor could he have imagined how many lives would be so profoundly affected by the outcome.

Bold and enterprising, but never reckless, Holden, as his friends like to call him, was looking forward to doing what he did best, and that was to net salmon.

Eight years earlier, Skip Holden and his wife, Marlene, had set out from San Leandro, California, to hitchhike to Alaska. They headed north, holding a sign that read ALASKA OR BUST! They arrived in Cordova nearly broke, found work together in a local cannery, and, in a month, managed to save twelve hundred dollars. They bought a twenty-foot boat for exactly that amount. They lived on it, fished off of it, and used a bucket for a toilet.

It was a romantic, albeit bare-bones, beginning in the rugged little fishing village located in a wind, sprawling land bursting with boomtown opportunity and colorful characters. There was a local stripper named Tequilla, whose writhing style of dancing naked was known to cause almost a riot as lonely, affection-starved fishermen trampled one another for a closer look.

Then there was Machine Gun Betty. She was a large Indian woman who worked as a bartender at a local watering hole. Her way of dealing with a rowdy crowd of drunken fishermen (who refused to leave at quitting time) was to pull out a Thompson submachine gun, level it on her rambunctious patrons, and order them off the premises. It’s closing time! Get the hell out! she’d say as the bar emptied.

During those eight years of hard work as a commercial fisherman, Skip Holden had seen some sights—such as the time the Fish and Game Department opened the season up in the fjord near Coghill Point, and he and his fishing pals had netted one million sockeye salmon in a single week of red-hot fishing.

Named after Skip’s wife, the F/V Marlene was known in fishing circles as a Snowball bow-picker. She had a six-foot-high reel mounted in the center of her foredeck. This spool-like contraption was designed to feed the one-thousand-foot-long gillnet off her bow and reel it back aboard via the same route.

Along the way, Skip had learned a few things about the nature of successful fishermen, too. Foremost, he had learned not to try to be like anybody else: The best fishermen fished according to the dictates of their own personalities.

As a rule, Holden worked alone. More of a hunter-type person himself, he liked to motor past the main sandbars (where most of his more conservative fellow gillnetters chose to make their drifts) and out through the surf. He enjoyed fishing the deep waters of the open ocean. When possible, he liked to intercept the fish well before they reached the main branch of the river, something at which he was quite adept, now having the self-assurance of a seasoned fisherman, one who had paid his dues and acquired a fair amount of fishing savvy along the way.

Armed with little more than a compass and a Fathometer, he roamed as far as ten miles out from the wild and ever-changing sixty-mile-wide delta of sandbars and tidelands known as the Copper River Flats, fishing the salmon-rich waters as far out as Cape Hinchinbrook.

Some fishermen didn’t li