On the Edge of Survival: A Shipwreck, a Raging Storm, and the Harrowing Alaskan Rescue that Became a Legend

Spike Walker

St. Martin’s Press

The rogue wave plowed into the bow [of the grounded freighter] and erupted skyward, producing a spectacular wall of ocean spray. The prevailing direction of the wind carried the curtainlike veil of leaden spray over the comparatively tiny, embattled figure of the H-60 rising before them, enveloping the sixty-five-foot-long helicopter, rotor blades, cockpit, rear cabin, tail section, tail rotor and all, essentially swallowing the aircraft whole … the helicopter seemed to falter in midair. Then it began its descent.

                                from On the Edge of Survival


A shipwreck, a raging storm, and the harrowing Alaskan rescue that became a legend

If there is a male counterpart to Chick Lit, it must be this kind of book. A guy’s book.

Northwest writer Spike Walker, author of Nights of Ice, Coming Back Alive, and Working on the Edge, has crafted another harrowing real-life thriller about man (there are no women in this story) against nature.

On December 8, 2004, the 738-foot freighter, Selendang Ayu, lost its engines in the midst of a raging storm off Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. Without power, the giant ship began drifting toward the treacherous coast, certain to be broken up by the gale-force winds and mountainous, 35 to 50 foot waves.

Two H-60 Jayhawk helicopters from the Coast Guard station at Dutch Harbor set out to rescue the ship’s twenty-six sailors. Dropping rescue baskets from 100-200 feet above the freighter, the helicopter crew began pulling up the men one at a time.

When one of the Jayhawks has to return to its base due to mechanical problems, the remaining helicopter continues removing the last nine sailors. Then, in the midst of a perfect rescue operation, nature throws them a curve.

A giant wave suddenly comes out of the night, slamming into the freighter, and shooting a wall of water several hundred feet into the air, totally swallowing the helicopter, and washing it from the sky.

A second smaller H-65 Dolphin helicopter makes a dangerous launch from a nearby Coast Guard cutter, setting out to rescue the rescuers.

Walker has once again written a breath-taking, heart-pounding, white-knuckled (let’s see, what other clichés can I throw in here?) gripping adventure. It’s not surprising his books inspired the hit television show, The Deadliest Catch.

He writes with a you-are-there immediacy, often times replaying the same critical moment from different points of view: of the commander of the Coast Guard cutter, watching the helicopter falling from the sky; the pilot as his copter stalls and begins to drop toward the churning sea; the young rescue swimmer on the doomed ship, watching the helicopter plunging down toward him.

This is stirring stuff, a guy’s book, about raw courage, endurance, sacrifice, and, too, about male bonds that go as deep as love.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (November 15-December 14, 2010). Reprinted with permission.