A Dozen Days off Cordova With an Elite Rescue Swimmer

August 19, 2022Noelle Wiehe
A remote air strip for US Coast Guard aircrews forward-deployed to rescue mariners in Alaska's commercial fishing fleet, Cordova is famous for daring rescues played out over vast distances in often miserable weather. Coffee or Die Magazine composite.

A remote air strip for US Coast Guard aircrews forward-deployed to rescue mariners in Alaska's commercial fishing fleet, Cordova is famous for daring rescues played out over vast distances in often miserable weather. Coffee or Die Magazine composite.

You might think 23-year-old elite US Coast Guard rescue swimmers don’t get bone-tired. But you probably didn’t check on Aviation Survival Technician 3rd Class Kimble Petersen during the dozen days he just spent operating out of a remote tarmac in Cordova.

In the late Alaskan summer, US Coast Guard rescue crews forward-deploy to the landing zone at the head of Orca Inlet to sheepdog the commercial fishing fleet as it chases halibut, rockfish, lingcod, silver salmon, and coho across the Prince William Sound and into the Copper River Delta or the Gulf of Alaska.

Petersen’s rotation as the sole rescue swimmer in Cordova started on Aug. 4, and over the next 11 days, he and his MH-60T Jayhawk helicopter crews rushed to find an overdue boater; help a crew struggling with a sailboat that was dead in the water off Kayak Island; hoist out an elderly lady who broke her hip on Hichinbrook Island; and ferry a heart-attack victim to Whittier.

And most of those rescues played out in miserable conditions, often over vast distances.

elite rescue swimmer

Aviation Survival Technician 3rd Class Kimble Petersen, 23, plays kickball during a morale event hosted by the Base Kodiak Chief’s Mess in Kodiak, Alaska, on April 27, 2022. US Coast Guard photo by Public Affairs Specialist 3rd Class Janessa-Reyanna Warschkow.

“We've had pretty wish-washy weather the whole time we've been here,” Petersen told Coffee or Die Magazine, bemoaning a steady stream of squalls and the never-ending banks of clouds that swaddled the mountains hemming in the sea.

“We don’t have visual; we can’t see,” he said.

On Aug. 6, US Coast Guard watchstanders scrambled Petersen’s aircrew because a 24-foot fishing boat had capsized. They took off into the darkness before they even had a destination or the name of the vessel.

“That was just a mayday call,” Petersen said. “We launched fairly quickly on that one.”

elite rescue swimmer

US Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Zach Vojtech co-pilots an MH-60T Jayhawk rescue helicopter alongside Capt. Nathan Coulter during a flight to Strawberry Point on Hinchinbrook Island on Aug. 10, 2022. Photo courtesy of Capt. Nathan Coulter.

The helicopter was hugging the shoreline for the 10-minute trip into the sound when a two-person skiff radioed watchstanders to guide them in.

Petersen saw the vessel overturned in the sea, a “big hole in the bottom” and already halfway sunk. The aircrew counted two mariners and two dogs sitting on the belly of the boat.

Aviation Maintenance Technician 1st Class Zach Garret readied the rescue swimmer to go down to the boat on a hoist, but the skiff pulled near the sinking vessel. The aircrew made the call to let the smaller boat take on the stranded mariners.

They hovered over the two vessels until the transfer was over.

elite rescue swimmer

A US Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak MH-60T Jayhawk aircrew operating out of Cordova, Alaska, transfers an elderly woman with a broken hip to a LifeMed Alaska ambulance in Whittier on Aug. 10, 2022. Photo courtesy of Capt. Nathan Coulter.

Nine days later came the dispatch to save a 5-month-old baby near Seward. The child was in respiratory distress and needed to get to the hospital in Anchorage, about 69 nautical miles away.

When the team landed on the Kenai Peninsula, they found the mom clutching her girl. A nurse had been giving the child oxygen.

Petersen asked the mother whether she wanted to put her baby in a car seat for the flight north.

“Yeah, I will absolutely hold her the entire time,” the woman told Petersen.

“She did not let go," Petersen said. "I wouldn’t either.”

Petersen gave the tiny girl earmuffs to help her sleep while they monitored her oxygen levels. But the shaking of the helicopter and the white noise of the propellers had her dozing until they landed.

“She seemed very comfortable,” he said.

Editor's note: The spelling of Aviation Survival Technician 3rd Class Kimble Petersen's name has been corrected.

Read Next: A Texas-Sized Effort To Save a Huge Belgian Draft Horse

Noelle Wiehe
Noelle Wiehe

Noelle is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die through a fellowship from Military Veterans in Journalism. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and interned with the US Army Cadet Command. Noelle also worked as a civilian journalist covering several units, including the 75th Ranger Regiment on Fort Benning, before she joined the military as a public affairs specialist.

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