Search called off for missing Montesano man after Alaska sinking

An Alaskan fishing trip that brought together high school buddies from Montesano ended tragically Thursday when their boat sank. One, John Reid, who now lives in Sitka, Alaska, was drowned and another, Fred Swenson of Montesano, is missing and a Coast Guard search has been called off. Dennis Monroe, also of Montesano, was rescued after swimming through chilly water to an island and attracting the attention of a fishing vessel by flashing a fishing reflector he had found.

Their 24-foot aluminum boat sank off the coast of Baranof Island at about 8 p.m. Thursday, according to Tim DeSpain of the Alaska State Troopers.

Swenson, Monroe and their friend Tim Decker of Bellingham had flown to Alaska on Thursday to meet Reid. The four men attended Montesano High School together in the 1980s and were “extremely close,” said Ken Decker, Tim Decker’s father. They went on a fishing and camping trip each summer.

After their boat sank, Swenson and Monroe were able to swim to a rock 100 yards offshore, but they quickly lost sight of Reid. As the tide came in, the rock was submerged and the two men had to swim to shore. Monroe reached land and Swenson was swept out to sea, DeSpain said.

A passing boat rescued Monroe at 11:50 a.m. Friday, and the U.S. Coast Guard began searching for Swenson and Reid. DeSpain said several local boaters and fishermen joined the search. Reid’s body was recovered by a fishing boat on Saturday. Swenson is still missing, and the search was called off Sunday.

All three men were wearing life jackets, and DeSpain said it’s likely that Swenson and Reid succumbed to hypothermia. The water temperature near Baranof Island is typically about 50 degrees in August.

“A person can be overtaken by hypothermia in a matter of minutes,” DeSpain said. “Sometimes they can make it for 45 minutes to an hour if they’re able to keep swimming.”

Ken Decker said his son was on a second boat at the time of the accident, and is now safe in Bellingham.

“He was on a different boat, thank God,” Ken Decker said. “We’re happy that he’s home and safe. But it’s a pretty sad situation.”

Ken Decker confirmed that Monroe is back in Montesano.

The Anchorage Daily News reported that the men set out from Sitka in two separate boats — Monroe, Swenson, and Reid in the borrowed 24-foot aluminum craft; Tim Decker in Reid’s skiff with a local man — with plans to rendezvous 15 miles away from town.

But somehow, the meetup didn’t happen, and Monroe’s boat pressed on. After overshooting their destination, they turned around and realized they were facing “considerable waves” and winds of nearly 25 mph, said Beth Ipsen, the Troopers spokeswoman.

Reid, who was driving, “gunned it for the shore,” she said, but the boat ended up swamping and sinking. The men were able to briefly climb into a raft they’d brought with them, but the rough waters tossed them out and separated them, according to Ipsen.

After making it back to land, Monroe spent a cold night clad only in a tank top, jeans, and his life jacket, Ipsen said.

The next day, he found a reflective fishing lure and used it to signal for help; he was ultimately picked up by a fishing boat and taken back to Sitka.