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Alaska's Unforgiving Weather: The Near Sinking of the Cutter Jarvis

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U.S. Coast Guard cutter Jarvis (USCG file image)

By Capt. Steven J. Craig 06-12-2020 10:12:00

Many Coast Guard members stationed in Alaska have stories of tragedies that can never be forgotten. Former Coast Guard Cutter Jarvis crewmember Joe Borosh commented that often they would receive an SOS from a fishing vessel off the coast of Alaska, and upon arrival they would find only debris and bodies.  In one particularly unsettling case, they arrived at the location and saw a man floating. “He was waving at us, and we proceeded towards the man.  On arrival, I grabbed the man’s hand only to realize he was dead, frozen solid.  He was bobbing in the water rather than waving at us.”

The weather in Alaska is unforgiving, with proof given in the numerous ship disasters that have occurred in Alaskan waters. Coast Guard regulations regarding the fishing industry have gradually improved safety through the years, but have not prevented accidents from happening - a reminder that Mother Nature is still in charge.  On April 1, 2001, the Arctic Rose sank in the Bering Sea, with the loss of fifteen men. It was deemed one of the worst commercial fishing accidents in the last century. Weather conditions at the time were reported as treacherous, with winds up to forty-five knots and seas to twenty-four feet.  In March of 2008, the fishing trawler Alaska Ranger sank 120 miles west of Dutch Harbor.  Forty-two of the forty-seven crewmembers survived the ordeal.  Many were suffering from hypothermia

The Aleutian Islands are widely known as a graveyard of past shipwrecks. Since the first grounding of a Japanese whaling ship in 1780 near the western end of the 1,100-mile volcanic archipelago, there have been at least 190 shipwrecks in the islands. These shipwrecks are due in large part to the geography of international shipping; it is the shortest route between ports of Asia and North America. An estimated 3,100 vessels travel this route each year.  In the past two decades, shipwrecks have become less frequent, but larger. In 1997, the freighter Kuroshima ran aground on Unalaska Island spilling over 39,000 gallons of fuel.  In December, 2004, the 738-foot Malaysia-flagged vessel ‘Selendang Ayu,’ ran aground, spilling over 328,000 gallons of fuel, the second largest spill in Alaska since the ‘Exxon Valdez’ spill in 1989.  This incident inspired the book “On the Edge of Survival,” by acclaimed author Spike Walker.  Walker describes the rescue of the ship’s crew in severe Alaskan winter conditions as “One of the most incredible Coast Guard rescue missions of all time.”

Another weather concern amongst Coast Guard members were williwaws.  A williwaw, or katabatic wind, is described as a sudden violent gust of cold land air, common along mountainous coasts at high latitudes.  They are quite common in Alaska in which cold, dense air is pulled down from the mountains toward the ocean where it will stir up winds and waves. David Landis, who has over fifty years sea time as a commercial mariner with many of those sailing the waters of Alaska, commented that “The Aleutian chain is a series of islands that jut upwards from sea level in an almost vertical ascension. Also known is that winds in this area particularly, are susceptible to higher gusts thru bays and passes, giving rise to williwaws. Dutch Harbor is a bay, and you have passes on either side.” 

Dutch Harbor itself is relatively well protected from the elements, surrounded both by high mountains and low-lying land areas.  This can change dramatically in the winter months when storms can strike with very little warning, particularly with williwaws. 

Captain Peter Garay, a former maritime pilot with over fifteen years of years of western Alaska sailing, describes his experiences with williwaws distinctly:

“The williwaws, powerful winter winds that come avalanching down the steep slopes of the surrounding mountains, are the worst. Forget about the normal physics of ship handling; they don't work. Nothing goes right. Imagine being at work and the ship you are on no longer behaves in any conventional manner. Suddenly you are heeling over 10° as a wall of wind and snow crashes against the ship's sides. Visibility drops to zero, and your vessel starts to move sideways like a giant crab. Everyone is scared.”

Regarding anchorage, the official mariner reference, the Coast Pilot, describes Dutch Harbor as “exposed to the strong winds which may be encountered in the area.  Violent williwaws are experienced during gales, especially from the southwest.”  When you take into account the severe weather - including the notorious severe williwaws and the extremely cold, windy, ice and wet conditions and high sea waves - you have the makings of a disastrous situation.

Nowhere can a better example be given of the direct effects of a williwaw than from the grounding and near sinking of the Coast Guard Cutter Jarvis in November of 1972.  The service’s newest ship, the Jarvis was in Alaska to enforce fishery regulations.  Forced into a nearby Dutch Harbor anchorage due to an approaching storm, the Jarvis was struck by winds that had increased on the leeward side of the mountain from eighteen to forty knots, with the Jarvis’ unit logs noting ‘experiencing strong williwaws.’ The anchor failed to hold and the ship went aground, tearing a hole in the bottom of the hull, with minor flooding in the engine room.  After temporarily repairing the damage, the ship attempted to sail home to Honolulu the next day, only to be struck by a more violent storm, tearing away the patch.  The engine room flooded with over thirteen feet of water, disabling the engines.  The Jarvis now floated powerless in the Pacific Ocean while being struck with wind gusts at seventy knots, hail and snow falling. At one time, the ship hit a swell at a sixty-degree angle.  If not for the arrival of a Japanese fishing vessel that towed the Jarvis to safety, the ship was only thirty minutes away from hitting the rocky shoreline of Akutan Island, which would have killed most - if not all - of the ship’s crew.

Capt. Steven J. Craig (USCGR, ret'd) is a retired Coast Guard Reserve captain with over 38 years of active and reserve service. This post is an excerpt from his new book, “All Present and Accounted For,” the true story of the grounding and near sinking of the Coast Guard Cutter Jarvis off the coast of Alaska in November of 1972. For more information, visit www.stevenjcraigbooks.com.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.