Whipping Winds and Waves Taller Than Elephants: Go Inside the ‘Race to Alaska’ Rescues

U.S. Coast Guard, Royal Canadian Air Force conduct joint search and rescue training north of Washington

An aviation survival technician from Air Station Port Angeles and a search and rescue technician from the Royal Canadian Air Force 442nd Transport and Rescue Squadron train on rescue operations in the Strait of Juan de Fuca off the shore of Washington on Oct. 3, 2018. US Coast Guard photo.

It’s a 750-mile chase for sailboats and paddlers from Washington’s Quimper Peninsula north to Ketchikan, but high winds and rough seas marred the start of this year’s Race to Alaska.

The race kicked off at dawn on Monday, June 13, in Port Townsend, a city roughly 40 miles northwest of Seattle. And within the first few hours, at least three separate emergency calls had reached US Coast Guard Puget Sound watchstanders.

Winds gusting at 35 knots churned the waves more than a dozen feet high in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. One boat lost its mast, and rough seas capsized three more vessels. R2AK organizers later reported that seven of the initial 46 racers dropped out before finishing the initial 40-nautical-mile sprint to Victoria, British Columbia.

US Coast Guard personnel from Station Port Angeles told Coffee or Die Magazine the gale created the roughest conditions they’ve seen offshore in years.

“It was definitely some of the worst sea state I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” said Boatswain’s Mate 3rd Class Jessica Ford, who’s been at the station for more than two years.

Coast Guard Washington

US Coast Guard personnel assigned to Washington’s Station Port Angeles stay busy throughout the year responding to emergencies like this boat fire on Tuesday, May 4, 2021. Three people were rescued from the burning vessel before Coast Guard boat crew members began battling the blaze. US Coast Guard photo by Public Affairs Specialist 3rd Class Michael Clark.

Race organizers retrieved the solo skipper of the first sailboat that overturned. But shortly after 6 a.m., a personal locator beacon began pinging roughly 6 nautical miles northwest of Port Townsend.

Watchstanders scrambled Ford’s 45-foot response boat-medium crew, which included Machinery Technician 3rd Class Teigue Lehne, Machinery Technician 2nd Class Ryken Wernofsky, Machinery Technician 3rd Class Justin Anderson, and Seaman Chasiti Shafstall.

When the crew reached him, the California man was “just hanging out” atop a yellow catamaran, Ford said.

Shafstall said the boater told her a wave had “caught him at the wrong angle and his whole boat just flipped over.” He had struggled to right his boat himself but eventually gave up.

“There was not a whole lot that he could do,” she said.

response boat-medium

A workhorse of the US Coast Guard fleet, the 45-foot response boat-medium is designed to rush to search and rescue missions. US Coast Guard photo.

A workhorse of the US Coast Guard fleet, the 45-foot response boat-medium is designed to rush to search and rescue missions. US Coast Guard photo.

But the mariner didn’t want to be rescued. He asked the crew to flip his catamaran so he could continue the race.

“I can understand the frustration at that point, but at what point do you get on the boat and be safe?” Ford said. “We needed everyone on scene, and we couldn’t just hang out there and try to re-right his boat in the sea state that we were seeing.”

The catamaran’s sailor agreed to board the rescue boat for a trip to shore, but they couldn’t take him there yet because they received a second rescue call.

They left the catamaran to be salvaged by Tow BoatUS.

Lehne, the machinery technician 3rd class, later called the morning mission the “craziest search and rescue case” he’d ever been on.

Strait of Juan de Fuca

The Strait of Juan de Fuca is a channel that sprawls roughly 83 nautical miles from the coast of Washington to the Pacific Ocean. The international boundary between Canada and the US runs down the center of the strait. US Coast Guard photo by Public Affairs Specialist 3rd Class Michael Clark.

The Strait of Juan de Fuca is a channel that sprawls roughly 83 nautical miles from the coast of Washington to the Pacific Ocean. The international boundary between Canada and the US runs down the center of the Strait. US Coast Guard photo by Public Affairs Specialist 3rd Class 3rd Class Michael Clark.

Luckily, a four-man US Coast Guard MH-65E Dolphin helicopter crew was flying to the second call.

Lt. Cmdr. Jared Highlander piloted the chopper alongside Cmdr. Chad Morgan, Avionics Electrical Technician 2nd Class Octavio “Octo” Estrada, and their elite rescue swimmer, Aviation Survival Technician 3rd Class Tyler Gantt.

Gantt told Coffee or Die the crew could practically see the disaster unfolding from their base, Air Station Port Angeles. When they got the mayday from the boat crew on the marine distress frequency, Channel 16, an arrow automatically spun on the helicopter’s compass to guide the team to the capsized sailboat.

Less than eight minutes later, the helicopter crew spotted a pair of swimmers Gantt said were “getting smacked by waves” taller than an elephant.

MH-65 Dolphin helicopter

A Coast Guard MH-65 Dolphin helicopter crew from Air Station Port Angeles flies close to the water while conducting training exercises off the coast of Washington, Jan. 26, 2018. US Coast Guard photo.

The two mariners clung to a small sailboat about a dozen feet long, its blue belly straight up in the air. Swirling gusts slapped at the crests, but Gantt said that “a helicopter likes wind.”

“It helps us with power margins,” he told Coffee or Die. “We can use the wind to our advantage.”

Because most of his rescue missions seem to come at night or in shallow waters, Gantt said he rarely gets to free fall into the water. But he was in a deep stretch of the strait and the mariners below needed him immediately, so he took the leap from 15 feet into the roiling seas.

“They’re ready when I’m ready,” he said. “I’m looking at the waves now, and I’m going to try and time it because I want to jump into the crest of the wave. If I jump in between two waves, I’m going to be falling for longer.”

He landed on the back end of a crest, maybe 20 feet below his helicopter crew. And that was okay.

“It’s fun,” he said. “Free falling is a good time.”

Race to Alaska rescue

Aviation Survival Technician 3rd Class Tyler Gantt free-falls into the Strait of Juan de Fuca offshore Washington on Monday, June 13, 2022. He helped rescue two survivors of a capsized sailboat. US Coast Guard photo.

Aviation Survival Technician 3rd Class Tyler Gantt freefalls into the Strait of Juan de Fuca offshore Washington on Monday, June 13, 2022. He helped rescue two survivors of a capsized sailboat. US Coast Guard photo.

But as Gantt splashed to the boaters, he saw “a white wall of water” rushing his way, forcing him to dive like a duck under the waves. When he popped to the surface, he was right in front of the two mariners.

Both wore life jackets, but one man was in a wetsuit and the other just rain gear. He was shivering and appeared to be edging into hypothermia.

So when the crew lowered the basket, Gantt sent him up the hoist first.

“His jaw was shaking. His arms were shaking; legs were shaking,” Gantt said. “I’m glad we got there when we did.”

The water washing over him was 52 degrees Fahrenheit. The rescued man’s body temperature had fallen to 94 degrees.

Race to Alaska rescue

A US Coast Guard aircrew from Washington’s Station Port Angeles rescues the survivor of a capsized sailboat on Monday, June 13, 2022. US Coast Guard photo.

A US Coast Guard aircrew from Washington’s Station Port Angeles rescues the survivor of a capsized sailboat on Monday, June 13, 2022. US Coast Guard photo.

Gantt bobbed in the waves as his crew tugged up both mariners. Then at his 10 o’clock loomed a black and green cooler. Dodging the high waves, he made his way to it, hooked the cooler to his carabiner, and went up.

“At least I was able to save a little piece of property in there,” he said.

Inside the helicopter, the crew learned that both survivors were military veterans, one from the Army and the other the Air Force. They appreciated a rescue from the Coast Guard.

The Coasties delivered them to a Port Angeles Fire Department ambulance waiting on shore, and they were rushed to Olympic Medical Center.

“Once I found out it was a race, it got me thinking: ‘Holy smokes, I hope everyone else is doing okay out there,’” Gantt said. “It was choppy seas and a little bit uncharacteristic for the Strait of Juan de Fuca out there.”

Race to Alaska rescue

A US Coast Guard aircrew from Washington’s Station Port Angeles rescues the survivor of a capsized sailboat on Monday, June 13, 2022. US Coast Guard photo.

A US Coast Guard aircrew from Washington’s Station Port Angeles rescues the survivor of a capsized sailboat on Monday, June 13, 2022. US Coast Guard photo.

US Coast Guard crew members pointed to a few lessons readers might glean in the wake of the Race to Alaska rescues.

When the event kicked off, weather watchdogs had issued both a gale warning and a small craft advisory for the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Mariners need to be prepared for that kind of weather and equip their small craft and themselves with proper safety and communication equipment. They also need to test everything before they head to sea.

“If those sailors hadn’t done that, it could have ended up a much worse situation,” Wernofsky, machinery technician 2nd class, told Coffee or Die.

For the Coast Guard, the rescues off Port Townsend also reaffirmed that their hard training and tough schooling will save lives.

“It was a great payoff,” Wernofsky said. “To do what we train for every day and to be here and go into a dire situation and have the best possible outcomes all around and coordinating and working with everybody — it was just a testament of that.”

Read Next: What Do You Do When a Really Big Ship Does a Doughnut on the Savannah River?

Noelle is an award-winning journalist from Cincinnati, Ohio, who came to Coffee or Die Magazine following a fellowship from Military Veterans in Journalism. She graduated from the University of Cincinnati with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and has strived to be a military journalist ever since her internships with the US Army Cadet Command in college. She worked as a civilian journalist covering several units, including the 75th Ranger Regiment on Fort Benning, before she joined the military herself and served as a public affairs specialist attached to the 3rd Infantry Division. She deployed once to fill a role as a media analyst for the Special Operations Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve in Kuwait. She has a passion for sharing stories of heroes and people who are far more interesting than they think they are. She follows where the job takes her, but currently resides on the East Coast in Georgia.
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