Excerpt from Deadliest Sea: The Untold Story Behind the Greatest Rescue in Coast Guard History...

RYAN SHUCK STOOD AT THE STARBOARD RAIL, near the empty canister that had held the number three life raft. The guys in charge of his muster group were telling people to go, that they had to get off the boat, and try to swim for the raft.

    Indio Sol, a Thai crewman everyone called by his nickname, “Rasta,” went first.

    “I guess I’m going in,” he said.

    Then just like that he climbed over the rail and descended the Jacob’s Ladder into the water. A young processor named Kenny Smith went next.

    Ryan watched each man hit the waves—and take off, two red dots drifting fast toward the boat’s bow. The two starboard life rafts were tethered to the moving ship with their painter lines. The lines were pulled taut and the rafts were a good distance beyond the bow. Ryan watched as his two crewmates drifted past the end of the ship, then beyond the rafts. He couldn’t tell if his friends saw the life rafts—or if they were trying to swim at all. They were already just tiny specks, powerless under the strength of the waves.

    Ryan climbed down onto the ladder, and tried to launch himself farther away from the side of the ship. He surfaced quickly and started swimming on his stomach, pushing hard for the nearest raft. It seemed like his strategy was working. The raft was ten feet away, then three.

    He was there. He hit the dead center of the tented structure and tried to grab on. But with his hands enmeshed in the thick neoprene he couldn’t get a good hold on the slick rubber raft. It was like trying to climb onto a giant inner-tube from the water, when the tube was already being towed at full speed behind a motorboat. Ryan was up against the side of the raft. Then, he was sucked underneath it. He couldn’t see. He couldn’t breathe. And then he surfaced—with the raft behind him.

FOR A FEW MINUTES AFTER HE WAS SUCKED UNDER the life raft, Ryan struggled against the breaking swells, trying to make it back to the orange shelter. But it was pointless. He was too far away, and already exhausted. He lay back horizontally in the water, letting his head rest against the inflatable pillow at the neck of his survival suit. His heart was pounding.

    Ryan tried to concentrate on how his suit supported him in the water and how best to avoid being pummeled by the swells. He did his best to position himself with his back to the breaking waves. He looked up at the moon, skipping in and out of view in the black sky. In the distance, he could hear someone yelling: “I can’t swim, I can’t swim. I don’t know what to do!”

    Ryan tried to talk himself into calming down.

    Every time he rose up on a crest, he could see lights spread out behind him in the water. It seemed like he was farther downwind than anyone else. There was a small cluster of lights about 200 yards away. For a few minutes, he tried to swim toward it, but the waves kept turning him around. He couldn’t even keep the lights in sight, with the way the water was flipping him around. He decided it would be better if he just stayed still.

    Gazing back toward the ship, Ryan could see at least half a dozen tiny, solitary beacons flickering among the waves. There was just enough moonlight to make out the outline of the Alaska Ranger bulging from the ocean. The ship was dark, just a shadow, really. Ryan watched as her bow turned slowly up, finally pointing straight toward the sky. The wheelhouse was at the waterline when, eerily, the lights inside flickered on for a moment.

    There’s still some power, Ryan thought. Maybe she’ll right herself. But then, in a matter of seconds, the ship plunged straight down, swallowed whole by the dark sea....

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The Alaska Ranger at dock in Dutch Harbor, Alaska. Photo by Ed Cook