CAPE DISAPPOINTMENT— The final minutes were frantic. The bilge pump failed. The motor was swamped. They attempted to bail water, but it was too late. Their boat was sinking more than a half-mile from the coast. They cinched on their life preservers, radioed the U.S. Coast Guard and braced on the bow. Seconds later they were scrambling in the frigid water.
For next nearly 30 minutes, Dirk Irwin, 50, Justin Williamson, 16, and Jake Kazamecki, 16, drifted helplessly in Pacific Ocean. The man and teenage boys were rescued by the crew of the Pacific Dream, a Pacific Salmon Charter boat skippered by Brian Cables who maneuvered the vessel toward the sinking boat after hearing their distress call over the radio.
“All I can say is (Pacific Salmon Charter skipper) Brian Cables is a hero,” Irwin said in a phone interview Sunday, July 9. “He saved our lives.”
Catch of the day
It was a trip Dirk Irwin, 50, of Vancouver, and his nephew Justin Williamson, 16, anticipated all year. It was the first fishing excursion of the salmon season, one of a dozen or so trips they do ritually each summer beginning in July. They had been counting down the days before heading to their favorite fishing spot off Cape Disappointment. On Monday, July 3, the day finally arrived. They fired up Aggi K, a boat Irwin routinely borrowed from a friend. The boat had been dependable for such trips for decades. Also along for the trip was 16-year-old Jake Kazamecki, a friend of Justin’s. The destination was a spot Dirk had fished since he was a Justin’s age, a short boat ride from the Port of Ilwaco, a trip Irwin had done “hundreds of times” on the same boat.
“We go out every couple weeks in the summer — 10 to 15 times a year,” Irwin said. The fishing trip started perfectly. They crossed the bar smoothly. Calm conditions coaxed them into taking off their life preservers as they fished. The sky was clear and the air was calm. Birds and whales fed freely around them, a sure sign of baitfish and salmon. They had been trolling for less than an hour when Jake reeled in the first fish, a 20-pound Chinook. It was a particularly proud moment for Kazamecki, an Arizona native who was experiencing the Pacific Ocean for the first time.
Things go wrong
As Dirk stashed Jake’s prized catch in the cooler, he noticed something was wrong.
“We put the fish in the box and I noticed the boat was kind of low in the back,” Irwin said. The stern was sitting lower in the water than normal, which prompted Irwin to inspect the engine.
“I pulled the engine compartment off and saw it was full of water,” he said. Irwin attempted to turn on the bilge pump, but it wasn’t working. Irwin then turned the boat toward Cape Disappointment Lighthouse and throttled the engine in a desperate attempt to reach the Benson Beach, but the engine cut out as the stern sank, stranding them more than a half a mile from shore. At 7:16 a.m. Irwin made a desperate call to the Coast Guard.
“I told them we had about 15 minutes before we were going to go down,” he said. Moments later Irwin was heard urging everyone to “Get on the bow!” and the radio went silent. Monitoring the conversation was Pacific Salmon Charter skipper Brian Cables, 58, who had already begun to maneuver the 56-foot vessel Pacific Dream along with 15 passengers toward the area where he believed Irwin and the boys to be.
“We couldn’t see the Coast Guard boat. They hadn’t made it out of the bar yet, so we decided to go over and get ’em,” Cables said. Passengers and crew soon heard the trio’s frantic calls for help, but big swells and glare made it difficult to see anyone on the surface of the water. Soon however, they were spotted by the passengers who pointed until Cables could maneuver the boat closer.
To the rescue
Deckhand Patrick Gore threw a life ring. Several passengers grabbed the rope and Irwin, Williamson and Kazamecki, were pulled aboard. The trio were exhausted and exhibited signs of being cold and shaken by their experience.
“You could tell they were cold,” Cables said.
“They were already incoherent.” After being pulled aboard, Irwin spent a few minutes on the deck, his hands still clinched around the rescue rope. Williamson and Kazamecki were ushered inside the cabin where passengers draped them in blankets and dry clothing. They all shivered as they spoke, each thanking the crew and skipper for saving their life. At 7:49 a.m. the trio were transferred to a 47-foot Motor Life Boat from Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment, which transported them back to station for medical evaluation by emergency medical service personnel. An MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew from sector searched the area for the sunken boat, but did not see it or any signs of pollution. In spite of their ordeal, the trio returned for salmon fishing trip July 4 aboard the Pacific Dream.
Broken seal or bellow blamed
Irwin said he plans to carry an emergency inflatable life raft, a flare gun and a waterproof radio on his next boat, which he insists won’t be an inboard/outboard like the Aggi K.
“I think it was one of the seals or bellows blew out,” Irwin said.
“In was an inboard/outboard and they have a boot around the outdrive that can crack or come loose and take on water.” Irwin said the boat was recently inspected and had new spark plugs installed.
“We just had the boat worked on, making sure it was running right,” Irwin said.
“Obviously, it wasn’t.”