Over the course of two summers, Shannon Ford attended two funerals, both for salmon fishermen who went into the water and drowned. That isn’t unusual for Alaska’s salmon fishermen: 47 salmon fishermen perished between 2000 and 2012 in man-overboard accidents.
Ford — who runs a setnet operation on Bristol Bay from her aluminum skiff, Paul Revere — and her two crewmen, Don Ward and Tyler Schuldt, could have bumped that number up to 50 on the night of June 26, 2010, when the Paul Revere, having hung up a setnet line, was swamped by a wave, then flipped over on top of Ford, Ward and Schuldt.
The only reason their fellow fishermen didn’t go to funerals for the trio is because they were wearing Mustang self-inflatable PFDs. For two hours the PFDs kept them afloat until first Ward and then Schuldt and Ford were able to stumble ashore and get help.
It’s a saga aptly captured in the just released video from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health: “Paul Revere: A Story of Survival in Bristol Bay.” It’s available on the NIOSH website and at NIOSH’s YouTube channel. (See NF’s coverage here.)
The 10-minute video starts with Ford and Ward relating the events that led to the skiff’s overturning and then describing how, while being carried along by a strong current, they managed to stick together and devise a plan of action.
They could spend time taking stock of their situation, said Ward, and figuring out what to do to get out of the water, instead of worrying about staying afloat and conserving energy, because the PFDs were keeping them afloat.
“Instantly it molds to you and holds in your core heat while supporting your head,” said Ford. “And it’s a mental boost: I can concentrate on directing us towards shore. None of our energy or mental focus was wasted.”
But watch the video for yourself as they describe passing numerous setnet camps, all the while signaling with a flashlight, yelling and firing off rounds from a 357 handgun — all to no avail.
Looking beyond Alaska, that 2000 to 2012 figure for man-overboard fatalities is 191 nationwide. Only one was wearing a PFD.
Setnet capsize survivors Don Ward, Shannon Ford and Tyler Schuldt proudly display their Mustang Survival PFDs; Kenneth Becker