"A speck in the Sea’ - a retelling of the miraculous rescue of Montauk NY lobsterman John Aldridge
SEAFOODNEWS.COM [New York Times] By Paul Tough - January 2, 2013 -
Looking back, John Aldridge knew it was a stupid move. When you’re alone on the deck of a lobster boat in the middle of the night, 40 miles off the tip of Long Island, you don’t take chances. But he had work to do: He needed to start pumping water into the Anna Mary’s holding tanks to chill, so that when he and his partner, Anthony Sosinski, reached their first string of traps a few miles farther south, the water would be cold enough to keep the lobsters alive for the return trip.
In order to get to the tanks, he had to open a metal hatch on the deck. And the hatch was covered by two 35-gallon Coleman coolers, giant plastic insulated ice chests that he and Sosinski filled before leaving the dock in Montauk harbor seven hours earlier. The coolers, full, weighed about 200 pounds, and the only way for Aldridge to move them alone was to snag a box hook onto the plastic handle of the bottom one, brace his legs, lean back and pull with all his might.
And then the handle snapped.
Suddenly Aldridge was flying backward, tumbling across the deck toward the back of the boat, which was wide open, just a flat, slick ramp leading straight into the black ocean a few inches below. Aldridge grabbed for the side of the boat as it went past, his fingertips missing it by inches. The water hit him like a slap. He went under, took in a mouthful of Atlantic Ocean and then surfaced, sputtering. He yelled as loud as he could, hoping to wake Sosinski, who was asleep on a bunk below the front deck. But the diesel engine was too loud, and the Anna Mary, on autopilot, moving due south at six and a half knots, was already out of reach, its navigation lights receding into the night. Aldridge shouted once more, panic rising in his throat, and then silence descended. He was alone in the darkness. A single thought gripped his mind: This is how I’m going to die.
Aldridge was 45, a fisherman for almost two decades. Most commercial fishermen in Montauk were born to the work, the sons and sometimes the grandsons of Montauk fishermen. But Aldridge was different — he chose fishing in his mid-20s, moving east on Long Island from the suburban sprawl where he grew up to be closer to something that felt real to him. He found work on a dragger and then on a lobster boat, and then, in 2006, he bought the Anna Mary with Sosinski, his best friend since grade school. Now they had a thriving business, 800 traps sitting on the bottom of the Atlantic, and two times a week they’d take the boat out overnight, spend an 18-hour day hauling in their catch and return the next morning to Montauk loaded down with lobster and crab.
Sosinski had a reputation on the docks as a fun-loving loudmouth, a bit of a clown — he actually rode a unicycle — but Aldridge was the opposite: quiet, intense, determined. Work on the Anna Mary was physically demanding, and Aldridge, who was lean but strong, drew a sense of accomplishment, even pride, in how much he was able to endure each trip — how long he could keep working without sleep, how many heavy traps he pulled out of the water, how quickly and precisely he and Sosinski were able to unload them, restock them with bait and toss them back in. Now, alone in the water, he tried to use that strength to push down the fear that was threatening to overtake him. No negative thoughts, he told himself. Stay positive. Stay strong.
The first thing you’re supposed to do, if you’re a fisherman and you fall in the ocean, is to kick off your boots. They’re dead weight that will pull you down. But as Aldridge treaded water, he realized that his boots were not pulling him down; in fact, they were lifting him up, weirdly elevating his feet and tipping him backward. Aldridge’s boots were an oddity among the members of Montauk’s commercial fishing fleet: thick green rubber monstrosities that were guaranteed to keep your feet warm down to minus 58 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature Montauk had not experienced since the ice age. Sosinski made fun of the boots, but Aldridge liked them: they were comfortable and sturdy and easy to slip on and off. And now, as he bobbed in the Atlantic, he had an idea of how they might save his life.
Treading water awkwardly, Aldridge reached down and pulled off his left boot. Straining, he turned it upside down, raised it up until it cleared the waves, then plunged it back into the water, trapping a boot-size bubble of air inside. He tucked the inverted boot under his left armpit. Then he did the same thing with the right boot. It worked; they were like twin pontoons, and treading water with his feet alone was now enough to keep him stable and afloat.
The boots gave Aldridge a chance to think. He wasn’t going to sink — not right away, anyway. But he was still in a very bad situation. He tried to take stock: It was about 3:30 a.m. on July 24, a clear, starry night lit by a full moon. The wind was calm, but there was a five-foot swell, a remnant of a storm that blew through a couple of days earlier. The North Atlantic water was chilly — 72 degrees — but bearable, for now. Dawn was still two hours away. Aldridge set a goal, the first of many he would assign himself that day: Just stay afloat till sunrise.
Once the sun came up, Aldridge knew, someone was bound to start searching for him, and he could begin to look for something bigger and more stable to hold on to. For now, though, there was nothing to do but scan the horizon for daylight and watch the water for predators. For the first hour, the sea life mostly left him alone. But then, in the moonlight, he saw two shark fins circling him, less than 10 feet away — blue sharks, they looked like, 350 pounds or so. Aldridge pulled his buck knife out of his pocket, snapped it open and gripped it tightly, ready to slash or stab if the sharks tried to attack. Eventually, though, they swam away, and Aldridge was alone again, rising and falling with the ocean’s swell. He kept trying to drive away those negative thoughts, but he couldn’t help it: Who would get his apartment if he didn’t make it back? Who would take care of his dog? He thought about fisherman friends who died, funerals he’d been to at St. Therese, the Catholic church in Montauk. He thought about who would come to his own funeral if he didn’t make it.
But mostly he thought about his family back in Oakdale, the Long Island town where he grew up: his parents, who had been married for almost 50 years and still lived in the house where Aldridge was born; his brother; his sister; his little nephew, Jake. It was a close-knit, middle-class, Italian-and-Irish family. His father was retired from the Oldsmobile dealership in Queens where he commuted to work for decades. Aldridge pictured them all, asleep in their beds, and thought about the phone calls they would soon be getting.
His family didn’t bring it up much anymore, but Aldridge knew that none of them liked the fact that he had taken up such a dangerous profession. In his 20s, when he was starting out as a fisherman, his parents were constantly trying to talk him out of it. They gave up, eventually, but even now, every time he said goodbye to his mother, she looked at him as if it were the last time she was going to see him.
Alone in the darkness, he remembered a conversation he had a few months earlier with his sister, over beers in her backyard. They were talking about a friend of Aldridge’s named Wallace Gray, a fisherman who drowned off Cape Cod when his scallop boat sank in bad weather. It wasn’t a very cheerful conversation, and they both knew that they weren’t talking only about Gray. Out of nowhere, Aldridge felt compelled to make his sister a promise: If I ever get into trouble out there, he told her, just know that I’m going to do everything I can to get back home.
It was a little after 6 a.m. when Anthony Sosinski woke up onboard the Anna Mary. The mate he and Aldridge hired to work this particular trip, an old friend named Mike Migliaccio, got up first, and when he saw that Aldridge was missing, he yelled for Sosinski. They were both sleep-dazed, confused by the daylight. What time was it? Where were they? Sosinski tried to puzzle it out: Just before he went to sleep at 9 p.m., he told Aldridge to wake him at 11:30 p.m. Now it was past dawn. Even if Aldridge had decided to let him sleep (as he sometimes did), surely he would have woken Sosinski by the time they got to their first trawl. But they were more than 15 miles past their traps — almost 60 miles offshore. What could have happened?
The Anna Mary is a 45-foot boat, and most of its surface is taken up by a flat, open deck, so there aren’t that many places to search for a missing person. Still, Sosinski and Migliaccio looked everywhere. One hatch cover on the deck was off, and Sosinski thought maybe Aldridge had fallen into the open lobster tank, hit his head and drowned. He lay facedown on the deck and stuck his head through the hatch, ignoring the powerful smell. No sign of Aldridge.
Sosinski ran to the VHF radio, which was bolted to the ceiling in the small wheelhouse toward the front of the boat, and grabbed the microphone. He switched to channel 16, the distress channel, and at 6:22 a.m., he called for help, his voice shaking: “Coast Guard, this is the Anna Mary. We’ve got a man overboard.”
The Coast Guard’s headquarters for Long Island and coastal Connecticut is in New Haven. Sean Davis is a petty officer there, and it was his job that morning to stand watch at the station’s communications unit. Davis was part of a five-person watch that had just come on duty. Davis radioed back, asking Sosinski for details, and Sosinski started feeding them to him: when he last saw Aldridge, the course the boat was on, where they were now. No, Aldridge wasn’t wearing a life preserver. No, he wasn’t wearing a G.P.S. distress beacon. No, he didn’t leave a note. Yes, he could swim.
Davis asked Sosinski to stand by, and he turned to the rest of the team in the command center, a dimly lit room on the second floor of the base. The front wall was covered with maps and charts and video screens, which could show everything from a live radar image of Long Island Sound to the local news. Sitting nearest to Davis was Pete Winters, a Coast Guard veteran who was now working as a civilian search-and-rescue controller. That morning, he was the Operations Unit watch stander, which would normally mean that he’d be the person running the search-and-rescue computers. On this morning, though, there was a second person in the Operations Unit: Jason Rodocker, a petty officer who that week was “breaking in,” or being trained. Rodocker was new to Long Island Sound — he had just transferred two days earlier from the Coast Guard station in Baltimore. But as it happened, he was an expert in the Coast Guard’s search-and-rescue computer program, known as Sarops.
The first calculation the search team ran that morning was a survival simulation, taking into account Aldridge’s height (5-9) and weight (150 pounds), plus the weather and water temperature. It told them that the longest Aldridge could likely stay afloat before hypothermia took over and his muscles gave out was 19 hours. But that, they knew, was a best case. The reality was that very few people survived more than three or four hours in the North Atlantic, especially without a flotation device.
By 6:28, the command center had notified the search mission commander in New Haven, Jonathan Theel, and the search coordinator at the district headquarters in Boston, who would have to approve the use of any aircraft in the search. At 6:30, Davis issued a universal distress call on channel 16: “Pon pon. Pon pon. Pon pon,” he intoned, the international maritime code for an urgent broadcast. “This is United States Coast Guard Sector Long Island Sound. The Coast Guard has received a report of a man overboard off the fishing vessel Anna Mary, south of Montauk, between 5 and 60 miles offshore. All mariners are requested to keep a sharp lookout.”
Davis kept working the radio. He contacted the Coast Guard station in Montauk with instructions to launch whatever boats were available. Boston approved the use of two helicopters and a search plane, and Davis radioed Air Station Cape Cod and told them to get airborne as soon as possible. The closest Coast Guard cutter, an 87-footer called the Sailfish, was in New York Harbor, and Davis directed its crew to start heading east.
Rodocker, meanwhile, was manning the computer. The Coast Guard has used computer simulations in search and rescue since the mid-1970s, but Sarops has been in use since only 2007. At its heart is a Monte Carlo-style simulator that can generate, in just a few minutes, as many as 10,000 points to represent how far and in what direction a “search object” might have drifted. Operators input a variety of data, from the last known location of a lost mariner to the ocean currents and wind direction. Sarops then creates a map of a search area — in this case, of the ocean south of Montauk — with colored squares representing each potential location for the search object. Red and orange squares represent the most likely locations; gray squares represent the least likely.
The challenge in Aldridge’s case was that the search team had no clear idea when — and therefore where — he fell overboard. It might have been five minutes after Sosinski went to sleep, or it might have been five minutes before he woke up. That created a potential search area the size of Rhode Island, a sweep of ocean 30 miles wide, starting at the Montauk lighthouse and extending 60 miles south. This was a big problem: In contrast to the sophisticated algorithms of Sarops, the Coast Guard’s basic searching technique is a low-tech one — human beings staring at the ocean, looking for a person’s head bobbing in the waves. An 1,800-square-mile search area would be almost impossible to cover.
The team in New Haven based its initial calculations on Sosinski’s report that Aldridge was supposed to wake him up at 11:30 p.m. That suggested to them that Aldridge fell overboard between 9:30 p.m. and 11:30 p.m., which would put him somewhere between five and 20 miles south of the Long Island coast. Rodocker input those assumptions, and Sarops came back with an “Alpha Drift” — its first scatter plot of search particles — that curved in a thick parabola from Montauk Point southward, bulging out toward the east, with the highest-probability locations, the reddest squares on the map, clustered about 15 miles offshore.
The next step for Sarops was to develop search patterns for each boat and aircraft, dividing up the search area into squares and rectangles and assigning each vessel a zone to search and a pattern to use. A little before 8 a.m., New Haven started issuing patterns to the first three assets on the scene: the plane, a helicopter and a 47-foot patrol boat from Montauk. Sarops can assign all kinds of patterns, depending on the conditions — a track line, a creeping line, an expanding square — but in this case, each search crew was assigned what’s called a parallel search: a rectangular S-shaped pattern, with long search tracks proceeding roughly north and south and a small jog to the west between each track.
The helicopter was a Sikorsky Jayhawk piloted by two young lieutenants from Air Station Cape Cod named Mike Deal and Ray Jamros. Flying a Jayhawk in the Coast Guard, like many jobs these days, involves looking at a lot of screens: seven in total, spread out in front of Deal and Jamros in the cockpit, showing live maps, radar images and search patterns. When the parallel pattern came in from New Haven, the coordinates fed directly into the helicopter’s navigation system, meaning that the pilots were able to simply turn on the autopilot and let the helicopter fly the search pattern on its own. That allowed Deal and Jamros to turn their attention away from the screens and toward the water below them. They were joined in their search by two crew members who sat in the back of the helicopter: a rescue swimmer named Bob Hovey and a flight mechanic named Ethan Hill. Deal and Jamros scanned the ocean through their cockpit windows; Hill sat perched in the wide-open door on the right side of the helicopter, where he had the clearest view of the water below. Hovey spent most of his time staring at yet another screen, this one displaying the output of an infrared radar camera mounted on the bottom of the helicopter.
The Coast Guard search was off to an excellent start. It was a clear day with good visibility, and they had plenty of assets in place. The only problem, of course, was that everyone involved was searching in entirely the wrong place. Aldridge did not fall in the water at 10:30 p.m.; he fell in at 3:30 a.m. Almost 30 miles south of where the Jayhawk crew was carefully searching for him, Aldridge was clinging to his boots in the cold water.
Back in New Haven, Pete Winters was having second thoughts about the Alpha Drift. He borrowed the microphone from Sean Davis and radioed the Anna Mary directly. “Talk to me, Captain,” he said to Sosinski. “Fisherman to fisherman. Help me reduce this search area. We need to narrow it down so we can find John.”
Throughout his long career with the Coast Guard, Winters worked on the side as a commercial fisherman on the North Fork of Long Island, like his grandfather and his uncle before him. This gave him an advantage when a search-and-rescue operation involved commercial fishermen, especially Long Island fishermen: He spoke their language.
Sosinski had also been having second thoughts about the search area. After his initial conversation with Davis, he inspected the boat more carefully, and he found a few important clues. One hatch cover was upside down on the deck, which every mariner knows is bad luck — an upside-down hatch cover means your boat is going to wind up upside down, too. Aldridge must have left it propped up against the side of the boat when he opened the hatch — and he wouldn’t have left it there for long. The pumps were on, sluicing cool ocean water through the lobster tanks, which meant that Aldridge had been preparing them for the day’s catch. And in the warm summer months, Aldridge and Sosinski would usually wait to start filling the tanks until their boat reached the 40-fathom curve, the line on maritime charts that marks where the ocean’s depth hits 40 fathoms, or 240 feet, which is the point at which the water temperature tends to drop. The 40-fathom curve is only about 15 miles north of the Anna Mary’s first trawl. Then Sosinski found the broken handle on the ice chest, and he realized exactly how Aldridge had fallen overboard. It was still difficult for Sosinski to reconcile this new information with the fact that Aldridge hadn’t woken him up at 11:30 p.m., as scheduled, but he knew that Aldridge liked to push himself, and it didn’t seem entirely uncharacteristic that his friend might have just decided to stay up all night, alone, before working an 18-hour day pulling in traps.
Together Sosinski and Winters came up with a new theory: Aldridge had gone overboard somewhere between the 40-fathom curve, about 25 miles offshore, and the Anna Mary’s first trawl, about 40 miles offshore. At 8:30 a.m., Winters passed this new information to Rodocker, who punched it into Sarops. When the new map emerged, most of the dark-red search particles had migrated south of the 40-fathom curve, and Sarops quickly developed a second, more southerly, set of search patterns.
Theel, the search-mission commander in New Haven, then turned his attention to a more difficult duty: informing Aldridge’s parents. He called John Aldridge Sr., who called his wife to the phone, and they sat together, listening to Theel deliver the news of their son’s disappearance. Mrs. Aldridge was hopeful, but Mr. Aldridge felt certain his son was already dead. If he hadn’t been killed by the propellers when he fell overboard, he had surely drowned by now. Pretty soon, he thought, Theel would be calling back to say that the helicopters had found John’s lifeless body floating in the waves, or that the Coast Guard had decided to suspend the search.
The news about Aldridge was also spreading through Montauk’s fishing community. Much of the town’s commercial fleet was out on the water that morning. Some fishermen heard Sosinski’s anguished first call for help. Others heard Sean Davis’s pon-pon broadcast. And then word traveled from boat to boat, back to the dock and then all over Montauk. The mood in town was grim. Everyone knew the odds: a man overboard, that far off the coast, would very likely never be found alive.