Editor’s Note: The following story appeared in the Chinook Observer’s June 3 edition.
LONG ISLAND — An Aberdeen family whose aluminum boat capsized off the southern tip of Long Island survived a frightening experience, thanks to fast intervention by kayakers who noticed their plight.
On May 30, local emergency responders rushed to the Willapa Wildlife Refuge after one member of a kayaking party called 911 from the shore of the island, a semi-wilderness area only accessible by boat.
Portland-area resident Adam Bridgens said he and his group of about eight college friends were enjoying an annual Long Island camping trip on Friday afternoon. They were playing football on the beach around 3:30 p.m., when they first noticed a boat in the water about 1,200 to 1,500 yards from shore.
“We could see a boat come out. We were surprised because it was so far offshore,” Bridgens said. The friends couldn’t immediately tell that something was amiss, but continued watching the boat for about 15 minutes. In the meantime, Bridgens said, the wind picked up, the waves began rising, and they could see spray cresting over the boat.
“Eventually, we noticed that we saw four or five things floating,” Bridgens said. “The sun caught the glimmer of the aluminum boat. At that point we knew somebody was in trouble and it was getting serious pretty quickly.”
Annual island camping trip went awry
Earlier that afternoon, George and Haley Yakovich of Aberdeen had set out from the public launch at the Willapa Wildlife Refuge with their three children, ages three, six and eight, in a boat loaded with gear and food for a family camping trip, according to the Pacific County Sheriff’s Office.
Because the mishap coincided with high tide, and a brisk wind was coming in from off the bay and ocean, it is likely that they encountered unexpectedly rough conditions. By the time Bridgens and his friends spotted them, they had been in the roughly 55-degree water for somewhere between 25 minutes and an hour, trying against narrowing odds to get back to shore.
According to the National Marine Manufacturers Association, at that temperature, a person may lose muscle coordination or consciousness within one to two hours, and can survive no more than six hours.
Haley Yakovich said last week that the family had made the same trip several times before, without incident. But when they neared the southern end of the island on May 30, they quickly realized they were in for trouble.
“We basically turned that corner and knew the winds were gonna be making some bigger waves. It only took three waves. The first went over the front of the boat. I said, ‘I know I’m sitting in water.’” When a second wave hit, Haley, who was seated at the front of the boat, told her husband she was already immersed in water.
“The third wave hit and I said, ‘Honey we’re going in now,” Yakovich recalled. The boat capsized very quickly, and all five family members, who were wearing life jackets, found themselves swimming in the frigid water.
“At that point I didn’t think we were too far away. I thought we were close enough to swim to land — I really thought we were,” Yakovich said. At first, the family members tried to hold onto the boat and kick toward land, but the boat was too heavy for them to move. Yakovich estimates that they spent at least 20 minutes in the water, trying to swim, before they saw the kayakers paddling toward them.
“We just kept telling them, ‘We’re all gonna stay together and we’re gonna swim towards that land.’ George was telling them, ‘Don’t stop kicking, it’s gonna keep you warm.’ ”
Kayakers make rescue plan
Bridgens and his friends quickly formed a plan of action. Two set out in a tandem kayak, agreeing that if the family was in trouble, they would blow on their emergency whistle three times. After hearing the whistle, the friends back on the island called 911. Bridgens set out in his own kayak about 15 minutes later.
When he reached the tandem, the family’s little boy was seated between the boaters, while the mother, father and two little girls clung to a tow rope. With so much weight, the kayakers were having difficulty making progress in the rough waters.
“It was scary,” Bridgens said. He made two trips, carrying one little girl at a time safely back to shore. On land, the kayakers got the family out of their sodden clothing, giving them blankets and dry clothes to wear.
“They were pretty well exhausted. Everyone was scared, shocked,” Bridgens recalled. The mother was unable to walk or talk, and the two girls could only give their first names, he said.
“We just kept telling them, ‘You’re gonna be all right, we’ll get you to land, we’ll get you warm. Your parents are going to be OK,’” Bridgens said.
Official responders arrive
By 3:50 p.m., rescue workers from South Pacific County Technical Rescue, Naselle and Long Beach volunteer fire departments, Pacific County Fire District No. 1, Pacific County Sheriff’s Office, and Medix Ambulance Service began arriving on the scene, and a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter soared overhead.
As rescuers prepared to launch, a dispatcher reported that the family had made it to the shore of Long Island. Surf rescuers Doug Knutzen, Nick Haldeman and Ericka Hazen used jet skis to speed over to the island. They then returned all five family members to the dock, where ambulances waited to transport them to Ocean Beach Hospital. Later, Haldeman, Hazen and Knutzen returned and were able to retrieve the boat, as well as many of the family’s belongings.
None were injured, but the mother, who was carried to a stretcher, appeared to have been most affected by hypothermia. The others appeared cold and badly frightened, but otherwise unharmed.
Life jackets and quick thinking
Knutzen said that he and the other surf rescuers initially believed they had been dispatched to help the group of kayakers. When they arrived at the island, they were surprised to find a large group of people waiting with the victims, and to learn that three of the victims were young children.
“I was just floored when I saw the age and size of those kids,” Knutzen said. “We were transport. The rescue was done.”
The family’s life jackets and the kayakers’ quick thinking prevented a tragedy, Knutzen said.
“It was a good rescue. It worked out really, really well,” he said. “That water is not forgiving. Not only was someone paying attention, they were paying attention from a half a mile away.”
Melissa Dahlstrom, a member of the victims’ extended family, said the experience was terrifying for the members of the extended family, who had planned to meet up with the Yakovich family on Long Island later that afternoon. Dahlstrom and several other family members were still back at the boat launch when large numbers of emergency responders suddenly arrived. Like the others, Dahlstrom initially believed that it was the group of kayakers — not her family — that was in distress. So she was shocked when rescuers carried Haley Yakovich and daughter up the boat ramp.
“We had no clue,” Dahlstrom said. “That’s when we realized it wasn’t kayakers. It was horrible. … They had (Haley) on the gurney. She just reached out for me and was holding my hand, telling me not to leave her. I just kept telling her, ‘Everybody else is OK. Everybody else is OK.’ ”
Now that a few days have passed, “Everybody’s good,” Haley Yakovich said. “I was treated for hypothermia and we were released three hours later. Two of the kids have some pretty big bruises and rashes from the life jackets and things, but everybody’s happy. The kids bounced right back — I think it was more traumatic for me and my husband.”
Yakovich said she, her husband and children wish to express their deep gratitude for the kayakers’ heroic response.
In the days since the frightening ordeal, Yakovich said she and her family have been thinking about “how blessed we are, and how fortunate we are to still have all five of us. We’re very thankful that there happened to be kayakers.”
“All these years of going out there, I’ve said my favorite thing is that you really don’t see other people out there. It’s so private. Definitely it’s been an eye-opener. We’re just so thankful for everything,” Yakovich said.