“How we survived our hideous experience in the Narrows is something that will stay with me for the rest of my life. Everything was going so well until we were drawn into Deep Sound on some wild goose-chase search that could only be some deliberate attempt to cause us malicious harm. When we later learned the awful truth, the whole escapade became a surreal adventure that unravelled into a haunting mystery that never should be revealed.” Henry
Luck is never with those who most need it – we have all of us learned that – they also say praying for your lives does not create good luck either, only your ultimate salvation. And then there are those famous lines by the late Albert King who laments, ‘Lord, if it wasn’t for bad luck, I would have no luck at all’. So what use is any form of luck when it is so arbitrary in it’s brutality? We ourselves rode our good luck or indeed our bad luck, to the extreme – and in this we have absolutely no doubt. With almost certainty we were in the hands of the mighty sea-gods who for some reason decided that we should survive – perhaps we were owed some grace or favour for a past deed of encumbrance or even a sparing of our lives because it was simply not yet our declared time to die – I have no hesitation in telling you this despite your alacrity of opinion. Our mast and rigging spreaders were driven hard against the cliff-side wall in a tearing crescendo of sickening reverberation that churned my stomach into a cesspit of fear. Our furled mainsail shred into a thousand torn pieces which then mingled with strands of sheared shards of steel wire that tangled with the precipitous jagged edges of the slimy-black rocks that towered way taller than the top of our mast.
We had no control whatsoever over our speed or direction because our vessel and ourselves were at the mercy off the horrendous tidal currents driven by only God above knows what, there was simply nothing we could do. The terrifying whirlpool turned us around violently several times before spitting us out into the fast flowing maelstrom that then churned us back the way we had come. For some unfathomable reason we were not drawn into the revolving abyss that would surely have delivered us up dead to the devil – it was certainly fate, not good luck that saved our lives because now, after the event, we vehemently believe that something unaccountable or mysteriously powerful intervened in our favour. For you to know or even understand this strangeness, you must first read of the most mind-wrenching occurrences that would soon unravel in the bleak days following our incredible escape from the Peril Strait Narrows.
Within what could only have been one or two minutes and no more, we were driven out of the Narrows into what seemed relatively calm waters – but we had suffered dreadful damage when driven hard against the cliff wall. By now darkness descended quickly to the level that we could not make out the extent of our catastrophe. With some semblance of good luck our engine still functioned admirably to drive us clear of any immediate danger, but the blackness of the water was by now merging dangerously with the descending nighttime which revealed nothing of the Peril Strait channel that would lead us to relative safety. Our most urgent problem was to find the mid-channel to avoid the numerous islands and hidden rocks that even at this late stage barred our way to comparative safety. There was virtually no moonlight to guide us.
We quickly needed to asses our dire situation, there in the darkness we were all three still at great risk from the fast-moving currents that drove us headlong almost out of control. But we still had full steerage coupled with the welcomed power of our engine, though we desperately needed to know exactly where we were. Marie’s first inclination in her ever quick thinking mind was to order Henry below to see if we were taking on water, it was likely that our hull might be damaged and, if so, we faced a serious risk of sinking. In the meantime I held the wheel hard to starboard to ensure that we stayed in the lesser tidal stream towards the centre part of the channel – but I was acutely worried that somewhere ahead of us lay the intricate route through the numerous small islands, easy enough in daylight but here in the darkness a seriously dangerous endeavour. Marie rationally suggested it may be best to find some suitable depth to drop our anchor, at least then we could halt our uncontrolled headlong progress until we could carefully assess our situation. Just then came our second measure of good fortune, the thick storm clouds above suddenly parted to flood us entirely in the silver-white light of the most wonderful full moon.
We anchored tentatively behind Robin Island. It was precarious in the least, unlike our intended anchorage in Denman Cove where we would have experienced a calm and peaceful night. But at least we could calm ourselves down to take stock of our situation, perhaps we might even get some much-needed rest until sunrise – only then could we see the full extent of our damage. At this point, after being the absolute stalwart rock that invariably takes charge of a crisis in that inimitable style she is renowned for, Marie broke down in a flood of tears.
What could I do? I sat there feeling pretty miserable myself but it was imperative that I join Henry below decks to check Sänna’s hull for damage. Rightly or wrongly I said nothing, I know Marie well enough to realise that she is best left alone in these circumstances, a shoulder squeeze of encouragement only serves to bring on a more resolute floodgate of tears – I have long realised that a tearful deluge is not Marie’s usual style, that if left to her own resources she would soon regain her composure to once more take charge. But such was the traumatic experience we had each experienced, we cuddled each other emotionally which then served to stem the risk of a full on tearful outburst. Of course, Marie’s tears were not tears of fright or nervousness, Marie’s tears were a release of pent-up despair and emotion from the most terrible of predicaments that was, of course, entirely my fault.
Over many years we have faced numerous ocean storms together, risking our lives without any thought to our ultimate survival but this time our situation was entirely unexplainable. We had resolutely risked our lives to the absolute degree to help someone in trouble but then found nothing. It is difficult to satisfactorily describe to you the drained feeling inside when every ounce of your adrenaline is entirely spent, when you have expended all of your bravery and the relentless drive that then achieves nothing except the near loss of your own life – this was the prime reason for Marie’s tears of frustration – never should she be abashed nor pilloried for her release of the most primitive of female emotions. I myself felt vile, utterly shameful and embarrassed. I had made the spur-of-the-moment decision to turn into the entrance passage to Deep Sound, I alone bore the sole responsibility for deliberately endangering my vessel and the lives of my crew. You might sit there and think long and hard about this, about whether I made the correct decision or not, you might even give some thought to what you yourself would have done in my own situation and whether our circumstances warrant your disapproval or bitter condemnation. But consider this, a few moments after Marie’s release of pent-up emotion, Henry came up from below. He said there were no signs of any damage or flooding, that everything below decks seemed secure and relatively ok. Solemnly, he then informed us there was now nothing on the radio. Our SSB was silent, there was no emergency SOS message being transmitted.
The hundred or so miles back to Hoonah were relatively uneventful. We secured our mast as best we could – our damaged spreaders and the broken steel shrouds could be repaired eventually, providing we could get the materials we would need shipped the thousand miles from Seattle to Hoonah. For that there might be a considerable delay, all marine supplies came by the long laborious route through Canada’s British Columbia by towed barge. Our own voyage to Hoonah was made more difficult because the damage to our mast meant that we could not use our sails for any sort of propulsion – we would have to motor with our engine the whole way; it also became a close call over our reserves of diesel fuel but we made it safely into Hoonah harbour the following day without further mishap. We tied up in our usual slip, then spent the rest of that day going about our business, trying to be as normal as possible in order not to alert anyone or cause any undue alarm, we at first said nothing of what had happened for fear of being ridiculed and condemned. We did, however, straightaway make our report to the State Trooper in Hoonah as was our legal duty, describing to him in detail the emergency transmission we had picked up through our radio. We fully expected an immediate search response by the US Coast Guard, that wonderfully professional service that is so well-regarded by every seafarer in Alaska. But that, it seemed, was not to be the case.
The Trooper himself took detailed notes, noting the precise times of each transmission together with our exact location when each call was received, then he asked why we were there in the Peril Strait at all when a safer route existed southwards along the Chatham Strait. As normal in these circumstances we showed him our written passage plan detailing the times of tides in conjunction with our progress along the Straits. He was satisfied that our attempt to transit the Narrows was well founded and reasonably thought through, that we had not overly endangered our vessel by taking undue risks by planning to attempt to navigate the Narrows. Nor were we by any means novices at handling our vessel. When it came to our response to the emergency Mayday call the Trooper sat there behind his desk in contemplative silence. He would officially notify the Coast Guard, he said, but it would be their ultimate decision. They might send a search aircraft or vessel into Deep Sound although, he explained, he doubted very much that they would. The State Trooper would not elaborate why, it was almost as if he did not believe one single word of our harrowing account.
Sitting now in the Icy Straits Lodge, drinking ice-cold beer with Scott, Braden, cousin Sasquatch, Boy Roy, No-Neck Nigel and Rigger Don, relating to them exactly what had happened seemed a million miles away from the catastrophe that had nearly overwhelmed us in the Peril Strait. By now we ourselves had recovered our composure to some degree – but it goes without saying that we remained somewhat bewildered by the subdued reaction of the State Trooper with his low-key response. What concerned us greatly was the seemingly lack of urgency with regards to sending help to whoever it was in trouble in Deep Sound. Of course, this added enormously to my general unease now much endorsed by my self-depreciating guilt, a deepening guilt that somehow I had endangered my vessel and my crew for no common reason.
Without doubt both Marie and myself felt increasingly disturbed by even more crucial time passing by. Our general agitation was not helped by the way all six of our fishermen friends stared right at us without anything being said – not in a disbelieving way but in a manner that we ourselves found worryingly disconcerting. Have you yourself ever experienced that same perception when you know damn well that something is not quite right? You know what I mean, that intuitive feeling when you suspect the reality of your real world is about to be turned upside down?
At this point in my depiction of what happened in the dreadful Narrows, I must inform you that as yet you are still very much unaware of the heartbreaking tragedy that has since unravelled as a consequence of our foolhardy venture into the Peril Strait – momentous events that have thoroughly shaken everyone else involved to the core. My revealing to you of our ghastly experience when caught in the deadly maelstrom whirlpool that so nearly claimed our lives is purely a precursor to what then happened, a forerunning harbinger to even more outlandishly extraordinary occurrences that subsequently enveloped each of us who became involved. I respectfully request one more time that for now you refrain from your perhaps derogatory opinion of the facts I have already described to you. When you finally know and understand everything, only then will it be the correct time for you to form a considered opinion of whether I tell you the truth or not. Even so, I cannot reasonably ask that you keep a completely open mind – because I do not wish to induce into you a degree of openness that will leave your senses entirely vulnerable.
I am about to tell you a good deal more than I should, but regret to inform you that I cannot tell you absolutely everything, not the full story because of an uncompromising promise I have made to an individual whose identity must remain a mystery for the sake of common decency – though you will still find the facts of this unraveling catastrophe both disbelieving and no doubt disagreeable. If nothing more you will suspect that you have taken leave of your senses – or that you are being deliberately deceived in some money-making venture that will leave you decidedly out-of-pocket. I respectfully implore you to put this obtuseness out of your mind – because I swear on my very life that I have no wish to take advantage of your good nature. I have no devilish scheme in mind to relieve you of your hard-earned income. All I respectfully request from you is that you absolve me of all blame and responsibility for the hideous calamity that occurred which then nearly lead to the loss of my crew. In trying to establish whether I am entirely blameless or not, I am endeavouring to protect someone from any form of unwelcome attention, more specifically someone who has done no wrong or warranted any intrusion into their life that nowadays is taken for granted. For the sake of my own sanity, and indeed my virtuous credibility that is so important to me, I will try my undue best to describe to you the sorrowful events that subsequently occurred in relation to this strangest thing that happened to us deep in the wild wilderness of the Peril Strait. Only then can you properly decide whether everything I tell to you is incredible fact or some cunningly fabricated fiction.
For the sake of sagacity and for reasons of rationality it quickly became obvious to ourselves that we must somehow get to the bottom of what had occurred to us in the confines of the Narrows. I was in absolutely no doubt that these Alaskan fishermen with whom we were drinking beer with right now knew a deal more about the mysterious Peril Strait than they were prepared to admit, both Marie and I sensed this uncompromising fact almost straightaway. No one knows local waters like common fishermen, so without doubt we were talking to the right people. Henry sat there quite confused, his much younger age precluded him from consuming any alcohol – therefore he did not suffer the loose headedness that slowly enveloped the rest of us.
‘From the way you’re looking at each other I’m guessing you know something more about the Peril Strait that we do not.’ I replied to Braden’s question about whether we were down in the Peril Strait when we had picked up the distress call on our SSB radio. The sympathetic way Braden then looked at me confirmed my awful suspicion, there was indeed something more that he wanted to say, something which made him hesitate unceremoniously – almost as if he was trying to choose his words carefully.
It was Braden’s father Scott who then asked about the calls, about exactly what the caller transmitted. Marie related the radio transmission almost word for word but could not remember the call-sign of the caller. I immediately formed the impression from the way they all glanced at each other that the caller’s call-sign didn’t really matter, that they already knew who had made the call but Henry chipped in with the call-sign anyway… because he has that sharp memory of a teenager, he is not like the rest of us – the older generation who cannot remember small details like intricate numbers. Henry, to his utmost credit confirmed the call sign MX577, and from this moment our senses went into that free-fall state which you have no doubt experienced yourself from time to time, when you have suddenly been hit by an unexpected sledgehammer blow that sent you reeling in confusion and total bewilderment, when some unforeseen shock created a wretched feeling of sickness swirling around your stomach that then made you sit there like a frozen idiot. Such was the reflex action that enveloped the three of us right now, the feeling of horrible stupefaction when Braden told us that MX577 was the call-sign of a world war two bomber aircraft named Lazy Daisy that came down in the vicinity of Deep Sound, then disappeared into the deep forests without trace. The B17 aircraft crashed in 1942, with no wreckage or survivors ever being found.
Old Billy Bishop, a grey-haired pony-tailed redneck who lives onboard his somewhat decrepit, run-down houseboat that is tied up throughout the year in Hoonah Harbour, is a likeable enough guy but the sort you deftly avoid at risk of getting into one of those hefty one-way conversations that requires you to stand on the dockside for an inordinate amount of time. His vessel isn’t much of a dwelling, more a floating junkyard workshop where he lives and sleeps amongst his rusting lathes and grimy oiled-up workbenches. Bill is typical of those eccentrics roughnecks that migrate from mainstream America’s lower forty-eight States to wild Alaska, drawn by Alaska’s frontier mentality and refusal to acknowledge any form of Federal authority. These guys invariably grow unkept grey beards, hoard their arsenals of personal weapons and make it known that no government authority will ever control any aspect of their rebellious lives – their myriads of conspiracy theories are often totally wild and wonderful, a joy to listen to providing one maintains a semblance of reality of the real world. Such is Billy Bishop, at sometime in his distant past a naval engineer of some note who decided that Alaska was remote and wild enough for him to disappear into. Only a few months before I had watched Bill land his skiff on the dockside with three red deer he had shot, he then proceeded to skin and butcher them on the dock not less than five metres away from Sänna, his devilish eyes proud now that he had all of his seasonal meat to store for the bitter Alaskan winter.
I tell you all of this, about old Billy Bishop, because Bill played an inherent part of what happened next. Of course, we were soon to learn that we were not the first to encounter the mysterious SOS calls down in the Peril Strait. There had been rumours for many years of a strange transmission, usually picked up by fishing vessels endeavouring to use the Straits as a shorter route home from their tribulations far out in the storm-ridden Pacific Ocean – as you can imagine, the Gulf of Alaska is a wild place of savage winter windstorms the ferocity of which are truly legendary. The Peril Strait is undoubtably a tempting alternative to making the long passage around Cape Ommaney to then drive northwards up Chatham Strait or even seeking shelter in the old Russian built port of nearby Sitka. Talk amongst the Tlingit Nation community had it there were devilish ghosts in the Narrows – the local Tlingit never ventured into Deep Sound for fear of things they would rarely divulge to you. I will tell you more of this fascinating enigma later.
Bill came down to see me on the Thursday evening following our return to Hoonah. He deliberately waited until I was alone, I saw Bill seemingly hanging around until he found his opportunity whilst I checked Sänna’s mooring lines – a brisk autumn storm threatened and it was prudent to take no chances even in the good all-round shelter of Hoonah Harbour. The skies to the west were threateningly dark and decidedly ominous; sudden fifty knot winds are not uncommon around Chichagof Island, blowing across the Icy Strait from the immense glaciers of the high St Elias mountains with intense coldness that drives banks of thick low cloud and miserably freezing rain. Bill asked about the radio call – like everyone else he had heard whispered talk of the English sailboat and our near disaster in the perilous Narrows. By now everyone in Hoonah knew of our experience, the staring stares and knowing looks we received just walking down Hoonah’s only main street confirmed that. Without any shadow of doubt we were single-day celebrities but, more curiously, it seemed to us that we were now accepted into some inner fold, that we had transgressed a hidden barrier to join the tough mad-cap seafarers that mostly make up the Chichagof Island community. That, I tell you, made all three of us feel more than a little proud.
Bill pestered me to know the transmit frequency on which we had received the radio call. I told him truthfully that I could not exactly remember. On an SSB radio you can dial in a four to five digit frequency – so there are literally thousands of separate transmit and receive frequencies that can be used. To keep things relatively simple there are bands of internationally agreed frequencies that are commonly used, standard emergency communication frequencies for example that all radios are automatically tuned into for sudden emergencies at sea. Then there are agreed frequencies reserved for weather transmissions and things like that. Private communication frequencies are usually agreed between vested individuals or sea-going vessels so that ongoing contact can be maintained – but in between there are countless thousands of frequencies that never get used. I reliably informed Bill that I could not remember the frequency but that Marie or Henry might. Thinking about it there and then I figured that Henry would be best to ask that question, so I called below to get Henry up on deck to talk to Bill.
My intuition was correct, Henry said the transmission was in the six MHz band and reeled off the four digit number which, of course, would be wrong of me to divulge to you or reveal here on written record. For the sake of common sense there are unearthly reasons why I cannot tell you the radio frequency supposedly used by Lazy Daisy. Of course, it would simply not be right that every man and his dog should try to tune in their cheap transistor radios to get themselves some bottom-end thrill at the expense of the seven dead men who lost their lives that dark stormy night back in 1942 – and more importantly, I am prevented in doing so by postliminary promises I have since made with relevant US authorities who may well find it necessary to undermine our ongoing welfare. But first, before all of this – of which the full details you will be reliably given, this sorrowful tale took yet another bizarre twist that served to render our sanity yet one more blast of incomprehensible magnitude. Please allow me to tell you more.
When Henry and I first climbed aboard Bill’s houseboat Northern Pride it is fair to say we were visibly shocked. He had invited us onboard because, he said, he had something to show to us. His boat was a veritable collection of junk of every description, Billy Bishop being an avid hoarder and collector of absolutely everything he could lay his hands on. Bill stored everything that he could in every nook and cranny of his boat, anything he might someday need and fix, he said. Bill went on to show us a great deal – with accompanying detailed descriptions that eventually began to wear thin on our sensibilities. ‘But you need to look at this,’ Bill suddenly offered.
Henry and I stared at what seemed to be an old radio set. It appeared broken and in a fairly decrepit state but it was obviously a radio of some description nevertheless. ‘This is vintage 1940’s technology,’ Bill informed us. ‘The reason you could not communicate with the caller in the Peril Strait is that your SSB radio is different technology. It transmits on the single side of the dipole whereas the old valve operated radios used in military aircraft in those days transmitted and received on the opposite side of the dipole.’ Bill looked at both of us with a strange glint in his eye, almost as if he had triumphantly revealed some hidden technical knowledge which, of course, he had. ‘You could hear them, but they couldn’t hear you,’ he said.
At this point I related to Bill in a rather perplexed manner that seventy-five years had elapsed since Lazy Daisy had disappeared, that it simply was not possible to communicate backwards in time. Our own considered opinion was that someone had played a cruel trick when calling us, almost as if trying to lure us into Deep Bay and the hazardous Narrows for some malicious reason, not only ourselves but other vessels too. Without doubt someone had set themselves up with an SSB transmitter, someone who now played an extremely dangerous game. ‘Not necessarily,’ Bill said, ‘But with this old valve radio, if I can get it working, we can certainly find out. Whoever it is that’s transmitting and trying to trap innocent vessels in the Peril Strait whatever their reason, we’re sure gonna know about it.’ Bill’s deep Texan drawl seemed decidedly out-of-place this far north in wild Alaska.
Return To The Abyss
It will not be difficult for you to picture in your mind how it came about that the three of us, together with old Billy Bishop and with our friends Braden, Scott and their man-mountain cousin Sasquatch left Hoonah onboard the Alaskan seine-netter Icy Queen, bound for the Peril Strait. With us we had Bill’s WW2 valve-operated radio-set which by now he had working courtesy of replacement valves he ‘just happened to have’ somewhere at the back of his ramshackle workshop. We left Hoonah in great secrecy, on no account did we wish anyone to know that we were departing on such a foolhardy wild-goose-chase mission. Our deliberate aim was to track down whoever it was that made these calls and then endeavour to put a stop to them. We would also search for anyone who might conceivably be in trouble.
This time, as skipper of Icy Queen, Scott was entirely responsible for safely transiting his vessel through the Peril Strait, he and Braden together worked out the tidal times in the same manner that we ourselves had done only one week previously – and I have to tell you that I myself felt somewhat relieved that I no longer carried this responsibility. I have no hesitation in telling you that the pair of them were vastly more experienced of Alaskan waters than we ever were; they also had the advantage of having passed through the Straits a number of times before – and they had the added expediency of being readily aware of the horrendous hazards that lurked within the Narrows. Icy Queen too was immensely more powerful than Sänna, so on this occasion the circumstances of our passage would be quite different.
We approached the devilish Straits from the north, down Chatham Sound and past Tenakee Inlet, a long narrow indent into Chichagof Island that leads to the small all-white community of Tenakee Springs, a wild sort of place that attracts the more extreme wilderness-seekers from the lower forty-eight States. The Tlingit settlement of Angoon, from where we ourselves had fatefully departed nearly a week previously, lay a moderate distance further south to our port-side on Admiralty Island. Once again we passed Point Craven – taking care to avoid the rip-tides there just as we ourselves had been advised back in Angoon, we turned into the entrance to the Straits to find the same banks of drifting sea-mist barring our way – with the thick fog lingering ominously on the high mountainside shores of both Chichagof and Baranoff Islands. Of course, nothing ever changes to any significant degree in the Peril Strait.
The total eeriness of the Straits had not subsided at all in the intervening period. Scott steered Icy Queen at half-speed, which was still twice our own vessel speed when on engine. We nosed our way into the mist, feeling our way forward with Henry and the great hulk of cousin Sasquatch acting as the most keenest of bow lookouts. Marie and Bill powered up Bill’s radio which by now was hooked into Icy Queens communications wiring – which meant the old radio benefited from the more powerful transmitting antennas that are nowadays found on these tough Alaskan fishing vessels – usually deep ocean bound. Of course, this was a totally surreal adventure – it would not be wrong to say that all seven of us were nervously apprehensive, totally absorbed by the mysterious circumstances of our wild voyage into the Peril Straits. Then, in that well-known manner of issuing profanities that Americans are renowned for, Scott announced with considerable alarm that we were being followed.
Scott pointed out the ominous echo on his radar screen, the resounding blip meant there was undoubtedly another vessel only a short distance behind. Braden and myself peered over the cluttered stern of Icy Queen to stare into the murky mist. It was made more difficult by the mountain of stored nets and miles of buoyed ropes, the stink of fish also a keen reminder that we were onboard a working vessel that was itself nearly forty-five years old. But the deep throb of the great Chevrolet marinised truck engine gave me a confident feeling of remorseless power, power that meant that we should easily deal the worst the Narrows could throw at us. There was still no visual sign of the vessel that tailed us, though visibility was less that one hundred yards in the drifting mist – perhaps it was a coastguard vessel endeavouring to head us off, maybe trying to prevent our business of discovering the truth behind Lazy Daisy and her crew. Even worse, it could be a small ship loaded with curious sightseers, eager tourists who had heard rumours about our vocation… or even another crew attempting to steal our thunder although we had been careful to conceal our departure from Hoonah so that we could avoid this very situation. Then, both Braden and myself spotted the following vessel just as Icy Queen’s VHF short-band radio crackled into life. ‘Hi you Guys, where do you think you’re going eh?’ It was Alaskan Maid, no doubt with Boy Roy, No-Neck Nigel and Rigger Don onboard.
In may seem to you a conciliatory gesture but we three were not displeased that Alaskan Maid had secretly tagged along. It is fair to say that each of us here onboard Icy Queen harboured private thoughts about somehow landing ashore in Deep Bay to discover who was making the radio transmissions, for that we would need to be alert and committed to a concerted effort; the more the merrier as far as we ourselves were concerned. Because of our own close shave with doom we were more than desperate for any clues that we could find. The crew of Alaskan Maid could only add to our resources, by sneaking up on our stern then insisting that they join us, we were surely increasing our chances of finding any wreckage or even clues to what had happened to Lazy Daisy. Then, over the VHF radio we learned that No-Neck Nigel knew a great deal more than we supposed. Rigger Don informed us that his long employed deckhand had long known the identities of the missing crew – information that had been passed to him a number of years before by some source he subsequently would not reveal. The crew of Alaskan Maid demanded to be involved whether we liked or not.
I think you will have learned by now that we were not the first to encounter the SOS message transmitted by someone lately associated with Lazy Daisy. Rumours had been around for more than fifty years – fishing vessels using the Straits had reported the peculiar call several times around the vicinity of the Narrows and Deep Sound. In 1976 a search had been instigated into Deep Sound following the sad loss of the long-liner Lady Jane to the north of the Narrows, the crew had eventually been rescued but the skipper and cook had tragically been drowned. The survivors of Lady Jane told of the Mayday message they had received and how they too had turned into Deep Sound on a supposed mercy mission. The subsequent search of the bay found nothing, no clues or wreckage of Lazy Daisy or any signs that anyone else had survived. The original military search back in 1942 had also found nothing of the aircraft and her crew. Then in 1989 two large commercial trawlers from Sitka got caught bad in the Narrows, colliding in the savage whirlpool that suddenly enveloped them. They were caught unawares whilst trying to contact the caller of an emergency call saying they needed urgent help somewhere, they thought, from inside Deep Sound. More lately, in the late nineties, two Tlingit fishermen in their kayaks had camped on the more remote northern shoreline in Deep Sound – after surviving a gruesome grizzly bear attack they reported seeing the ghostly figure of a white man dressed in flying jacket apparel, he was standing watching them only a short distance away.
You may or may not take these obscure facts into your consideration when you are able to form a more sensible opinion relating to the matter of the disappearance of Lazy Daisy in 1942. Nowadays the Tlingit will not venture into Deep Sound, though they omitted to inform ourselves of this fact back in Angoon. Perhaps they did not consider it of any great consequence because many vessels pass through both the Peril Strait and the infamous Narrows without encountering any great mishap or misfortune, noticing nothing untoward. Why we were singled out remains a mystery that we will likely never fathom, but old Bill Bishop made the perhaps valid point that our communications technology onboard Sänna is a little different to that found on most local vessels. As long-distance round-the-world sailors we have a professional need to communicate on the more uncommonly used bandwidths capable of transmitting or receiving on more powerful frequencies. There is a debatable argument in this, which some of you radio purists out there will no doubt dismiss, but as an ex-radio communications engineer in the US Navy and a noted Ham radio enthusiast of many years standing, there must be at least some credibility in what Bill tells us. Of course, such credibility then becomes highly questionable when you consider that right now we were barreling down the Straits with a reconditioned WW2 aircraft radio-set, rebuilt in an attempt, in Bill’s weird mind, to communicate with someone who had supposedly died seventy-five years previously. That was Bill’s intended aim but the rest of us were a little more realistic in our expectations. We more rationally believed that someone periodically emulated the distress call in some demented deliberate manner to tempt vessels into trouble, perhaps for their own entertainment or indeed in a wild and twisted act of piracy. By finding the wreckage and remains of Lazy Daisy we would end this charade whilst at the same time solving the mystery of our own near disaster.
No doubt you will smile in reticent agreement but then I have to tell you that a few moments later, after we talked with Alaskan Maid on the VHF, Marie picked up the same emergency transmission on the exact MHz frequency we had heard it before. Bill’s old radio set worked magnificently, the old-fashioned glass valves glowed with new-found subliminal energy with the old-fashioned dial meters showing a faint signal strength once more infuriatingly inundated with hiss and interference that made the caller almost inaudible – but not quite. Whoever it was who made these almost obscene calls was there all right. There was absolutely no doubt about that.
It was the same message repeated over and over again. ‘Mayday, Mayday, MayDay. MX577 calling. Urgent help. We are downed on the north shore, vicinity distorted ineligible crackling.’
We all stood around the radio transfixed. Scott stopped Icy Queen dead in the water, he turned off his excessively noisy engine so that he too could crowd around Bill’s radio to listen. Icy Queen drifted silently and almost too swiftly in the flood tide that right now carried us inexorably towards Deep Sound and ubiquitous Narrows – it was almost as if we were being drawn mystifyingly towards some fate over which we had no control. Marie was the only one seated, she sat at the radio with the huge leather headphones burying her ears like giant muffs, with the old ceramic mike held fist-like in her hand. Marie listened to the caller around a half dozen times before flicking the big transmit switch on the front face of the ageing radio.
‘Station MX577 calling Mayday, this is fishing vessel Icy Queen. Please state your exact position and nature of emergency. Over.’
Marie’s voice was steady and full of assuredness, this was my wife at her most magnificent – when she is in control and fully confident in her own abilities, if anyone had the determination to sort this mystery then it was my dutiful wife. But, frustratingly, there was no answer from the caller. Marie repeated her answering call, ‘Station MX577 calling Mayday, this is fishing vessel Icy Queen. Please state your exact position and nature of emergency. Over.’ Not surprisingly, there was still no answer.
‘Mayday, Mayday, MayDay. MX577 calling. Urgent help. We are downed on the north shore, vicinity Deep Sound.’ It was the exact same message, it was almost certain that we were being deliberately duped by some malicious recording intending to draw us into the same predicament that we had previously encountered when approaching the Narrows onboard Sänna. Everyone standing around the radio stood in abject disappointment. Of course, it was difficult to be certain if all those there ever really expected an answer, supposedly based on Bill’s argument that it originated from a caller making a radio call conceivably made seventy-five years previously. Scott, almost in disgust that he had been duped along with the rest of us, mounted the steps to the wheelhouse to restart Icy Queen’s engine, he made definite noises about turning Icy Queen around to head back to Hoonah.
Mayday, Mayday, MayDay. MX577 calling. Urgent help. We are downed on the north shore, vicinity Deep Sound.’
This time the voice seemed somewhat more urgent but that was purely the reaction in each of our minds, each of us by now was beginning to dismiss the seriousness of the call and to almost resent it – of course, the mystery caller had been more than successful in teasing our sensibilities, drawing and sucking us into his cruel little game before spitting us out in spiteful contempt. Marie herself sat there thoughtfully, examining the myriad of dials and switches on the front face of the radio almost all of which she had no idea with regards to their original functionality. One switch for some reason caught her attention, it was marked obliquely ‘DPT’ which, of course, meant nothing to anyone there. Marie flicked that switch before talking once more into the radio mike still held in her hand.
If at any point you might dismiss this monologue as ridiculously tiresome and full of untruths then now is the right time to end your interest and walk away. You will be left with nothing more in your mind than a conviction that I am purely attempting to absolve myself of blame in getting things perilously wrong in the Peril Strait, of badly screwing up a highly risky venture in transiting the Narrows when we really had no business to be there. Indeed, this seemed to be the esteemed view of the State Trooper back in Hoonah, that I had deliberately endangered the lives of my two crew and the safety of my vessel in some wild adventure that was, in reality, beyond my capabilities. This may well be true, but I implore you to even now keep an open mind for just a short while more. Nevertheless, here, you have the opportunity to dismiss my convictions and to walk away with a negative opinion of my efforts. I tell you this because when Marie flicked on the ‘DPT’ operation switch, which we now know on hindsight operates the ‘Dipole Power Transmission’ function of world war two radio sets used by many allied aircraft of the era, events relating to our original attempt to transit the Narrows and to our current reason for being in the Peril Strait onboard Icy Queen, dramatically changed forever…
Read more of A Message For Martha… The Subtle Truth
The title A Message For Martha forms part of Tales From Alaska, a series of short-story blogs based upon true events chronicled by the English sailing vessel Sänna and her intrepid crew during their three years of adventures in the wilderness of Southeast Alaska. You can read more about Sänna and their round-the-world circumnavigation voyage at www.sanna-uk.com.