Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Life and Death on Aiaktalik Island

The Marion a, 1978. Photo: Corky McCorkle,
Kodiak Harbormaster in the 1970s.
On October 1, 1978, two weeks into the Kodiak King Crab season, the Marion A., a 42 foot steel boat, headed for the south end of Kodiak Island with sixteen crab pots. Onboard were skipper Delno Oldham, 25, and deckhands Jerry Allain, 28, and Gerald Bourgeois, 29.

Delno Oldham, from Washington State, had fished for about five years. Allain, from Kodiak, had worked as the Kodiak Daily Mirror pressman before going fishing, and  Bourgeois, from Covington, Louisiana, had gotten to know Allain while salmon fishing. It was Bourgeois’s first crab season.
 The next morning, 100 miles south of Kodiak city, the boat turned into the mile-and-a-half wide channel between Aiaktalik Island and Kodiak Island.  A 20 knot wind drove a five foot chop, with “waves breaking in all directions,” according to later testimony by Bourgeois.
Jerry Allain. Photo: Kadiak Times
Around 10:30 the boat suddenly listed heavily to port. Allain and Bourgeois ran out on deck while Oldham tried to maneuver the boat upright again. He turned into the seas and the boat rolled back to starboard until it was upright again, but it kept going over onto its starboard side and then upside down. Allain and Bourgeois went into the water and Delno Oldham swam out the galley door just before the wheelhouse went under. From the initial list to being upside down took a minute and half.
The men clung to the keel for a few minutes until it sank under them, bow first. They found themselves in 45 degree water, halfway between Aiaktalik Island and Kodiak Island, three quarters of a mile from either shore.
Delno Oldham. Photo: Kadiak Times
“I saw Jerry but I didn’t see Delno anymore,” Bourgeois would tell a reporter later. His survival suit in its stowage bag bumped the back of his head and with Jerry Allain’s help, he got it on. He had tried the suit on only once before. They began swimming for Aiktalik with Allain clinging to Bourgeois’s waist, but within fifteen minutes Allain “started talking really slow,” according to Bourgeois. “He knew it and I knew it. It was going to take too long to reach land.” Bourgeois held his friend for awhile but then, “I was sure he was dead. I finally let go.”
Bourgeois told himself “I want to live, I want to live,” over and over, until he washed up in the surf on Aiktalik Island three hours later.  He had lost his glasses. He had two waterlogged matches. He built a driftwood lean-to to get out of the wind.
Over the next eleven days Bourgeois took the survival suit off only three times, when the sky cleared enough to dry out in the sun. The suit’s feet tore off as he scrounged for mussels on a reef, but the suit kept him warm enough to stay alive.
He watched for passing boats from a high point above the beach and walked to a stream for water. Temperatures were in the 50s, unseasonably warm, but he worried about the inevitable coming of winter.  
Bourgeois found some wild celery and beach greens and ate mussels. On the seventh day he found a half gallon of fresh milk in the surf, and a Hershey bar. He drank half the milk, ate the Hershey bar, and saved the rest of the milk for later. He caught a baby vole, but the animal blinked at him, a fellow creature in a harsh world, and he could not bring himself to eat it.
On the second day two planes passed overhead and eventually more than 50 boats passed through the channel, including a Coast Guard cutter, but Delno Oldham had not had time to make a distress call and no one was looking for the Marion A or its crewmen. Bourgeois waved and blew a whistle, but the planes and boats kept going.
On Friday the 13th, Bourgeois prayed every half hour that the 13th would be his lucky day. Around 10 a.m., as Oly Harder’s 38 foot Moonsong, passed by, a crewman saw a man on the beach. They turned around to get a better look.
The Moonsong came closer and Bourgeois swam out to it.  They pulled him aboard and a Coast Guard helicopter came out for him. He spent two nights in the Kodiak hospital, but except for some minor immersion damage to his fingertips, he was basically okay.  
Gerard Bourgeios. Photo: Jerry Martini, Kodiak Daily Mirror
Bourgeois would later allow that he had prayed himself off the island. “It was a solemn experience…It got me closer to God, no doubt about it…” a few days Later he flew home to Louisiana. The bodies of Jerry Allain and Delno Oldham were never found, and why the boat rolled over and sank remains a mystery.

In a tragic post script to the story, according to friends in Kodiak, Gerry Bourgeois was reportedly killed in a car wreck in Louisiana a few weeks after his ordeal in Alaska.