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Big Night in Hoonah

You just never know where or when life will get interesting.



Hoonah, Alaska, is not where you'd expect drama. It's a typical Alaskan fishing village: mountains and forests and water, a few houses and boats along one paved road. It was a one-bar town, and after three days at sea, that's all we cared about.

We came in late, and the only thing of interest we saw was the M/V Whale coming out of port. We'd been following her since Seattle, and as we passed starboard-to-starboard on flat-calm water, our skipper teased theirs on the radio, saying if it wasn't for all the halibut we caught, we would have caught them a long time ago.

We tied up at the dock and hadn't even changed clothes for town when our engineer came into the galley, opened the engine room door, and said, "I'm gonna hand you a pump and some hoses, and you're gonna put them on the stern."

"You feelin' okay?" I asked. "That was a whole sentence without cussing!"

"We got an emergency call," he said. "The Whale is sinking."

Sinking? It hadn't been 10 minutes since we talked to those guys, and the water was so flat you could skip rocks on it. But when you hear a boat is sinking, you don't stop to think. We got the pump out and then gathered around the radio. Our skipper said something about a rock, then I heard the Whale's skipper on the radio, the same voice I heard laughing just a few minutes ago.

"Uh, Coast Guard Juneau," he was saying, "we've got water up to the main deck."

"Have you left the vessel?" came the response.

"We are preparing to do so," he said.

"I just need to confirm," Coast Guard said, "that the engine room is full of water."

"That's correct," Duke said. "Took about seven minutes"

That threw a hush over our boat. The Whale is 75 feet long with an engine room seven feet tall -- a pretty big place to fill with water in seven minutes. The Whale was actually going to sink. Disappear from the surface and go to the bottom.

Within a few minutes we were less than a mile from her, all looking into the darkness to try to find her. She was upright but looked like somebody had cut off the bottom six feet or so. We could see the house, some of the cargo on the deck, and the bow. It was a calm, beautiful night -- not what I thought a shipwreck would be like.

The crew was in their skiff, four orange survival suits in a silver boat, emergency light flashing in the bow. They threw us a line and started handing things over: a pair of shoes, a leather cowboy hat, and a briefcase. That was it.

They shuffled into the galley, and I made them coffee. I made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for one of them. Flailing around for conversation, I said to one of them, "I always wondered if I had five minutes to get off a boat what would I take with me." He looked around at his sock-footed companions and said, "Well, this is it."

We got them back to the dock, then headed back out to the Whale. We figured we'd drop anchor next to her and watch her for the night, mark the exact spot where she went down.

We anchored up about 100 feet away from her, and it was quite a sight. The water was over the rail around the main deck, but the boat seemed perfectly stable. She was a dark, ghostlike thing sitting there in the water. No wind, no sound, nothing. We got closer, and we could see that some of the cargo on the deck was under water as well. It was like the ocean had half-swallowed the boat but couldn't take any more.

We were getting closer to the Whale all the time, but we figured we were swinging on our anchor. But then our skipper said we weren't swinging at all -- the Whale was turning towards us. The tide had come up enough that she had cut loose from the rock and was floating free. "I think she's gonna come over here and join us," he said. And by George, she did. She came right over and put her bow on our starboard stern and left it there, like she had gotten lonely out there in the dark and wanted to be with another boat.

"Well, let's see if we can get a line on her and tow her in," he said. "We'll be the heroes of the night!"

Incredibly enough, it was as simple as that. Joe got a two-inch thick line, Albert jumped on the Whale and threw the line over her anchor, we tied the other end off to our center bit, and off we went. The heroes of the night, I suppose.

Joe, Albert, and I stood on the stern and talked about how much money we had saved the company, between the boat and all the stuff on it, and how the guys in the crew would be able to get all their stuff back, and how the poor old boat would have wound up drifting off to who knows where and scattering itself onto some rocks had we not been in the area to get her. We felt mighty good about ourselves.

I was just starting to settle down when I noticed a weird light in the sky, right above the darkened Whale behind us. It was like somebody was shining a huge light from one end of sky to the other, only it didn't go all the way across. As I watched it, I saw shapes form in it, like hanging curtains. The little curtains appeared and disappeared a few times over, looking like holograms in the sky.

My first shipwreck and the Northern Lights, on my only night in Hoonah.

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