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‘This is it’: Cordova fishermen tell harrowing tales of trip home in waves whipped by unseasonable storm

The Copper River fishing vessel Autumn Wind sits at the dock in the Cordova Harbor after the net reel broke free from her deck in rough weather trying to fish the area on Thursday. (Courtesy Bob Martinson)

Bill Markowitz has been commercial fishing for over 30 years.

But he figured his time was up Thursday when a giant wave caught his 27-foot gillnet boat as he tried to cross the bar at Egg Island Channel near Cordova.

“A breaker caught me, flipped me around sideways, and rolled my boat up on its side I’d say at least 45 degrees,” Markowitz said by phone Friday. “It flipped me around ... almost 180 degrees. When I went sideways, I thought, ‘This is it.'”

He was one of numerous skippers piloting salmon boats back from Copper River fishing grounds shocked by the huge swells they encountered returning home Thursday. The fleet was out on the most recent opening of a potentially lucrative fishing season for Copper River red salmon after a dismal season in 2018.

A storm generated 12- to 13-foot waves in the Gulf of Alaska and east winds pushed them toward Egg Island, according to Louise Fode, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service. Normally those kinds of seas show up in fall or winter, though, not the summer fishing season.

Features like bars, with sheltered water beyond, can whip up incoming waves.

“It can get pretty crazy in areas where rough seas transition to calm,” Fode said.

By Friday morning, and the end of the fishing period, conditions had eased up considerably. There were no reports of boats still in trouble or missing.

But a number of boats suffered broken windows and fishermen returning to town shared “several tales of horror crossing the bar,” Bob Martinson, who fishes out of Cordova, said in a message.

One fisherman needed to head back to town to make repairs but had trouble when he got to the bar, Martinson said. That’s when the net reel ripped off the deck of the man’s fishing vessel, Autumn Wind, and pinned him against the bow, according to a harbor neighbor.

A friend of Martinson’s working on a tender said everybody she saw after they came in across the bar looked “pretty terrified,” he said. Another fisherman with a powerful boat still had to let his net go because it was pulling him toward shore, where the huge swells could swamp it.

Lloyd Montgomery fished out of Cordova for 45 years before switching to Bristol Bay for five. He was fishing his first red season since and found himself in the middle of the worst trip he’s ever had crossing at Egg Island bar.

Montgomery said he noticed the channel had narrowed since he’d been gone — and then found himself in 4 feet of water instead of 20, and at the mercy of the waves.

“There was breakers all around me,” he said. “I went to turn left and part of the breaker foam got ahold of me and threw me on the starboard side.”

The force of the impact tossed his generator across the floor.

“I thought for sure I was going over,” Montgomery said.

Luckily, he said, it was just the edge of the wave that caught his 29-foot boat. He came off the huge wave and managed to find deeper waters and got to safety.

The forecast called for big waves, several fishermen said.

Markowitz said as he fished, the big seas just kept building and building. He had fish on board and wanted to get in, but waited until slack water after high tide to cross the bar.

“My original plan was to come in, deliver my fish, and go back out," he said. "I got in, I delivered my fish — and I was like, ‘I ain’t going back out there.’”

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