Lively Crab Festival survival suit race based on deadly serious events

The Coast Guard Rescuers team, made up of John Niel, Jake Pritchett, Evan Gallant and Jon Disalle, hold up a hard-earned trophy after competing against six other teams during the 41st Norm Holm Memorial Survival Suit Race during the Crab Fest on Saturday. The Coast Guard won with a time of 1:37.

Crab Festival 2021 is now history. At least it registered in the history books, unlike last year when in-person Crab Festival was largely canceled — a casualty of the COVID crisis. This year’s traditional welcome to summer went on as planned, in spite of rainy, windy weather. Food booths were sold out by closing time on Tuesday; singing groups drew crowds of umbrella holders, and the Blessing of the Fleet went on as planned.

Resilient Kodiak people will make the best of an annual event, in spite of miserable weather. Crab Festival is lots of fun. In fact, a former theme of the festival alluded to “how much fun you can have in the rain.”

But some of the activities of the Crab Festival are based on serious events. For instance, the Memorial Day service, which takes place at the cemetery, commemorates the fallen who have sacrificed for this country.

The invigorating survival suit race — named after a long-time Kodiak marine insurance adjuster, Norm Holm — simulates a perilous situation in which crew members don their survival suits and jump into the water as their boat goes down. 

The race begins at the St. Paul boat harbor ramp, where team members slip into the suits, some gracefully, others, not quite so gracefully. They plunge into the water and swim to a raft several yards away. Once they have hoisted themselves onto the raft, they swim back to the starting point.

Practically the whole town shows up for the survival suit race, which elicits a lot of laughter among the spectators and team members themselves.

But no matter how much fun it can be, the survival suit race is a sober reminder that fishermen need to be prepared.

Barbara Burch, an active member of the Fishermen’s Wives, and fellow wives organized Kodiak’s first survival suit race. She got lots of help from Joy Ng of Joy Crafts, and the late Dodi Cobban and Wanda Jentry. Emily Salter, an active member of Fishermen’s Wives, has been organizing the survival suit race for the past several years. 

The first survival suit event took place in 1980 at the Kodiak High School swimming pool. The activity was more of a demonstration than a race.

The incident that inspired the formation of the survival suit race was a tragedy at sea that claimed the life of fishermen Kim Hanlan and Wink Cissell, crewmen on the F/V Cloverleaf, skippered by Rick Laws. He shared his story of survival at sea at the Fishermen’s Hall in April 1980 with a  crowd of somber-looking Coast Guardsmen in uniform. 

According to an article in the Kadiak Times written by the late Nell Waage,  Laws said that he and his crew members were taking 30,000 pounds of hanging bait to sell to Chignik fishermen on April 2, 1980.

At 6 in the morning, Laws came on watch. The seas were getting a little choppy. 

Laws  planned to go around Sutwik Island, about 40 miles southeast of Port  Heiden, but as the wind picked up, he asked for a weather check and passage information from Burt Parker, owner/operator of the Amber Dawn. The inside of Sutwik  Island seemed a better route, so Laws changed course and passed in the lee of the island.

The boat rolled to starboard with a wave. It didn’t fully recover.

“We had about a 5-degree starboard list,” Laws reflected at the meeting.

The water on the deck didn’t seem to be draining. The bilge and engine room were alright, but the trawl doors were not secured properly. He woke his crewmen to tie the doors down.

Knowing they were in grave trouble, Rick ordered his men to get into their survival gear right away. He started to put his on. By the time he got his feet into the suit, the boat was rolling over. In the frenzy, he radioed the Amber Dawn again. There was no Loran station in the vicinity that would help Rick more specifically describe their location.

The stern was going under. Rick broke out through the wheelhouse door and stood on the side of the vessel.

By the time he zipped up his suit, the boat was going under. Wink had his suit on, but Kim had left his in the house.

Parker relayed the message to the Coast Guard Communications Center at Kodiak.

For a time, Kim held himself out of the water as far as possible, clinging to the life boat canister. As the boat sank, the tether line pulled the canister under. Theoretically, the water pressure was supposed to automatically pop the cannister open and release the raft. But not this time. 

“For awhile Kim was holding onto the raft (case) — it had come loose from the top of the house as it is designed to do. Then the lanyard that ties it to the railing pulled the raft out from under him. I don't believe the raft ever came up,” said Laws.

“It was pretty tough. I held Kim up but he didn’t last very long and eventually I lost him in the sea.

“Wink he was about five wave sets down from me. He had his hood up and he had the flotation pillow  blown up and he looked like he was underway. He looked fine. He gave me a high sign.

“That’s the last I saw of him. We drifted apart after that. The seas were rough. It was real cold. Hellishly cold.”

The survival suit Laws wore had a flotation ring that was designed to hold the person in the water upright. Getting the ring to work was difficult.

“I finally got the thing on back there and got the thing blown up and I thought, ‘God, I might make it.’ If you don’t have that (flotation tube) full of air, it turns you upside down and backwards,” he said. 

Laws finally got the device blown up, but the tubing came apart and the air blew out.

“I was still trying to get mine blown up. It was getting rougher,” he said.

“I had to tread water to keep my head above the water. That’s a pretty serious situation. If you’re going to be in the water for any period of time and you don’t have something to hold your head up, you’re in trouble.”

Sometime during the night, Rick grabbed a log and rested his head on that. He had to kick his legs to stay afloat. A small seabird landed on the other end of the log.

“I was sneaking up on that sucker. I was going to tear its head off and suck the blood out. That’s how hungry and thirsty I was,” he said.

It flew away before he could catch it.

During the night, the waters finally calmed. Rick saw boats on the horizon.

“One was making a circle. It must have been pretty close. I could see the crab lights on me,” he said.

Rick held his arms high, hoping the lights would reflect off the reflective tape sewn to the suit. After awhile, the boat headed in the opposite direction.

“It got calm for awhile that night and I could see boats way off on the horizon. One boat seemed to be making circles, but it was coming at me, and it came closer and closer. I am pretty sure that if it had continued that pattern it would have run right across me,” Laws said.

“I would guess the boat was from a half mile to a mile away because I could look at my suit and see the crab lights on me. I was jumping up in the water and trying to hold the reflective tape — hoping it would flash in his crab lights.”

At that point, the boat turned around.

The next morning at about 9, Laws and the body of Wink Cissell were spotted by a Coast Guard search plane. The plane directed local fishing boats to take part in the search of the area. 

Crewmen on the Bessie M and the Rondys, which had aided in the search, pulled Laws and Cissell out of the water.

Rondys skipper Vern Hall noted that when he picked up Laws, he was so cold that his temperature did not register on a thermometer.

“I don't think I could have lasted much longer,” Laws told the crowd at Fishermen’s Hall in 1980.

“The survival suit. Hey, it saved my life, but it sure as hell was an uncomfortable ride. (It) leaked. I just  barely made it.” 

At the meeting, Laws and others recommended frequent drills putting survival suits on and maneuvering in them.

“Have suits checked out often. Store them in handy, easy-to-reach places, preferably on deck where they can be quickly grabbed by crewmen in an emergency,” Laws said.

“Lots of guys I know say, ‘Sure, we’ve got survival suits ... they’re on the boat somewhere.’”

But when the boat is going down, there is no time to look.

By sharing his story, Laws was instrumental in initiating one of the Crab Festival’s most exciting events, and making significant changes in marine safety. 

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