The Irish fisherman who survived a fall overboard into one of the world’s coldest and most treacherous oceans has spoken for the first time about his survival.
James McCarthy, 36, said he “had breathed his last” and was “prepared to die” after falling from his brother’s trawler into the icy waters of the Gulf of Alaska.
The Kodiak-based fisherman, who is from Ringaskiddy in Co Cork, spent 25 minutes without a floatation device or survival suit, in near-freezing water. Experts said the survival time should only have been about 15 minutes.
However, James said that, as he felt life slipping away, his brother Peter, 44, and fellow crewman Makodo Odlin, 26, did everything they could to save him.
“Mak and my brother will be my heroes for the rest of my life. They did the best job they could. They couldn’t have done anything better,” he said.
“Why I’m back? I don’t know. I suppose my brother just wouldn’t let me go.”
The men were fishing on Peter’s boat, the 17m Stella, in the Shelikof Strait — a treacherous area of ocean featured in TV’s Deadliest Catch series — last Friday.
They were hauling 50-ton of pollock at around 5pm when one of James’s legs got caught in the net. He was pulled up towards the net reel and was flung head first into the frigid ocean.
“There was no shock, no instantaneous loss of breath,” he said. “I suppose the adrenalin just kicked in. Panic didn’t set in. I just knew what I needed to do.”
A non-swimmer, James was pushed by the boat wash away from the vessel as the mayday call of “man overboard” went out.
In a remarkable twist of fate, James and Peter’s older brother, John, 46, was among several skippers in the Kodiak fleet who heard the distress call over the radio.
He was just leaving port, and when he heard the coast guard scrambling a rescue helicopter, he decided it was best to head back to port to meet the chopper when it landed, not realising it was his own brother who was in trouble.
In the meantime, Mak had thrown a life-ring to James and Peter battled to turn the boat as the 50-ton bag of fish began to sink. James grabbed the life-ring, took slow deep breaths, and stopped moving to conserve energy.
“I could see the boat, and could see them trying to turn the boat, and Peter was yelling to hold on,” he said.
“I didn’t feel cold or anything, but the sea changed. It got choppier and I said to myself if I’m going to make it, I’ve got to do something so that they can get me, or get my body.
“I was fighting as hard as I could but I knew there was a good chance I wouldn’t make it.”
James tied his left leg to a rope on the life-ring and pushed his leg through the ring so that, even if he drowned, his body would float. As he tired, it became more difficult to breathe.
“I couldn’t take a breath without swallowing water and I started to fade,” he said. “I felt my grip loosening and I proceeded to drown.
“I thought: ‘This is it. This is how you’re going to go.’ I thought: ‘Damn it — my dog is going to outlive me.’ Then I went under and blacked out.”
By this time, Peter and Mak had managed to cut the net and turn the boat towards James. As they neared, Mak tied a rope around his waist and dived in and swam 6m to grab James’s body.
He attached a line around James’s waist and Peter hauled him, upside down, on to the deck of the trawler.
James wasn’t breathing and had no pulse as Peter and Mak struck him hard on the chest and began CPR. They battled for five minutes before James finally gasped for air.
“I asked: ‘Am I alive?’ ” James said.
“In my head, I was gone. I had breathed my last. I knew I had. It was very confusing and I was wondering was this the next life.”
Peter and Mak stripped James of his wet clothes, wrapped him in blankets, and stuffed hot water bottles around his body.
As Peter liaised with the coast guard, Mak kept talking to James, keeping him awake and alert.
“I was absolutely frozen at this stage, and my core temperature had plummeted,” James said.
The coast guard chopper arrived over the vessel soon afterwards and a rescue swimmer airlifted James for the flight back to Air Station Kodiak, where an ambulance, and his brother John, were waiting.
James fought back tears as he recalled the moment John said: “It’s OK. Your big brother is here.”
He was rushed to Providence Kodiak Island Medical Center in a critical condition.
“The doctors did a great job. And my brothers kept me going and got me fighting. Every one of them gave me the will to fight,” James said.
He was discharged within 24 hours, with minor back and leg injuries, and was back on board the Stella yesterday, preparing it for three and a half months in dry dock.
“They tell me I’m headed towards a full recovery,” said James.
“I have no problem being around the boat, or water. It’s what I do, what I’m good at, what I love.
“I’ve been fishing here for 20 years and all that training the coast guard make you do paid off.
“We’re made do CPR courses, drills, and safety courses, and now we know why we do it.
“There is nothing in the world my two crewmates could have done any better to get me.”
The McCarthy brothers are all well-respected skippers in the Kodiak fishing industry, and James said they have been overwhelmed by the support from locals in recent days.
Back at home in Ringaskiddy, their parents, Val and Dick, are just relieved the remarkable story had a happy ending.
“He was out of hospital and back home very quickly because hospitals over there are so expensive,” said Val.
“But James’s brothers are keeping an eye on him.”
Wicklow RNLI crew rescued four fishermen from a French fishing trawler early yesterday morning.
The volunteer lifeboat crew got a call from the Irish Coast Guard at 3.15am to go to the aid of a 26m, 120-tonne French fishing trawler, the Bara An Aod, which had suffered engine failure 4km east of Wicklow Head.
There was a strong south-easterly force nine gale with torrential rain and a 3m-4m breaking swell at the time.
The lifeboat Annie Blaker located the trawler at 3.55am and subsequently towed the stricken vessel safely back to Wicklow Harbour by 5am.
Tommy Dover, Wicklow RNLI Volunteer Lifeboat press officer, commended the efforts of the lifeboat crew.
Mr Dover said: “The crew responded very quickly to the mayday call and had the lifeboat launched within 10 minutes of being alerted.
“It was such a bad night but the experienced crew, confident in the lifeboat’s ability to meet the conditions, skilfully responded and were thankful and delighted to be able to assist the four crew members and their vessel safely to shore this morning.”
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