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Surviving Death in the Arctic Sea

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Barents Sea
Norwegian Sea
Jan Mayen
Kola Peninsula
Novaja Semlja

Friday the 9th of January, 2015, 05:30 am

NRK Dagsnytt:
"A fishing boat sank 120 kilometers north of Båtsfjord Friday night. An extensive rescue operation is initiated to rescue five fishermen ..."

Six and a half hours earlier...

Thursday the 8th of January, 2015. It's late at night.
It's almost 11 pm.

This is Kjell Danielsen (43)
Now, he has no idea about what kind of hell awaits him

110 km

Barents Sea
Berlevåg airport
Mehamn airport
Lakselv airport, Banak
Vardø radio

The month of January is dark here in the most northeastern part of Norway.

Sometimes, when Roger Sund drives through the cold and quiet city on his way to night duty at Vardø Radio, the weather is so intense that he sits in the car hoping that no one is out at sea.

This late Thursday evening is that kind of evening.
It's tough out there.

The big, black Barents Sea is freezing cold.
It's blowing a gale. It's -2°C or -3°C in the air and 2°C in the sea.

The large trawlers are docked.
But Roger knows that smaller boats are out there.

Roger Sund
11:00 pm

Roger is logging on.
He checks the sea traffic. Who is out fishing tonight?
Who is he going to pay attention to?

Through the night, he will listen to the traffic while the storm rages along the toughest part of the Norwegian coast. He's the first one to be warned when something happens.

Roger studies the tracking showing the positions of the vessels in the area

The fishing wessel "Østbanken" is the only one out there. It's so far out that it's on the edge of the VHF radio range.

It's far offshore, but the boat is solid. The Østbanken boat can withstand a storm.

Here, the Barents Sea is 300 meters deep, it's a good fishing bank with lots of fish. A boat is located even further out - far from Østbanken.

The wind and the waves would scare most people out of their wits, but the five guys at the fishing boat are tough and can take a ripple.

Kjell Danielsen (43)

Kjell Danielsen (43) is the oldest one on board. He's been a fisherman since since the age of 19.

He's got the sea from Lofoten to the Russian border as his home ground. Here, he moves between the banks, fearless, hardworking and strong after years of tough manual labor.

Aleksander Lyngberg (33)

Last summer, Kjell bought the boat in company with his friend Aleksander Lyngberg (33), who is also on board. The two men share the lead of watch rounds.

Maksim Belinskis (19)

The crew consists of three young Latvians: Maksim (19), Janis (22) and Kristaps (34). They are green fishermen on training.

They are in the midst on a small storm, 110 kilometers out at sea from Båtsfjord. Kjell's cabin is in the front of the bow. The other four stay in the stern.


At midnight Kjell goes on watch, while Aleksander goes to bed. They have pulled fish for 20 hours and still there are cod on the lines. It's fiendishly much fish, Kjell is thinking.

They are delayed. It's the weather. Everything takes longer in a storm. But now they are just going to pull the last lines, before heading towards Vardø.

A little further southwest, there is the Banak Airbase, in Lakselv.

Tage Gilje and the rest of the Sea King crew is about to call off the evening. The six of them are going on sleeping duty.

Many times before, they've been the rescue for seafarers in one of the world's roughest waters.

"We save lifes" we can read on his coverall.
It lies there, just beside the bed.

02:15 am

Kjell has finished his work on deck and he's standing in the wheel house. Aleksander and two of the Latvians are off duty, sleeping.

The sea is foaming. Waves of up to seven–eight meters sweep over the deck.

Kjell doesn't quite know what's happening. But something's not right. Is there something wrong in the engine? Is the bilge pump running properly? Has the cargo moved?

Kjell goes down and pulls Aleksander out of his much-needed sleep. He wants his friend up in the wheel house. He wants his opinion.

Aleksander says:

– Now, I'm scared

Kjell does not understand what he means. Is it so serious? He goes down to check on the engine.

The weather is damn heavy. It's moving too slowly, Kjell is thinking.
But the engine works normally. No sounds, no leaks.

But on his way back up he gets this feeling again.
"Østbanken" moves unusually. Is there anything he's overlooked?

– You should call Vardø Radio, he says to Aleksander.
Kjell wakes up the Latvian who is asleep. All five are awake now.

The water is rising fast on deck, and they have to pump it out. If it doesn't work, they have to leave the boat.

Kjell checks on the engine once more. The others bring the emergency pumps. The sight that meets them is terrible: water is now above the deck.

Icy waves wash over "Østbanken" and brings it even deeper down.

This can be fatal

Aleksander Lyngberg calls on the VHF

03:30 am

"Østbanken. LHWI". The boat is taking on water and lies deep in the sea. They are going to mount an emergency bilge pump, Aleksander says.

At Vardø Radio, Roger Sund is four and a half hours into his night duty. He's calm. "Østbanken" is far out there. This can get serious, he's thinking.

The message is communicated via the radio:
Possible ongoing rescue operation, fishing boat, five men, taking on water, far out at sea.

Roger alerts the Joint Rescue Coordination Center in Northern Norway and the colleagues at Bodø Radio.

A few minutes later, the 330 Squadron of the Norwegian defense at Banak Airbase in Lakselv is alarmed.

The on-duty crew is out of bed. They received a first notice stating that an operation should be prepared

The Sea King is driven out of the hangar

The cabin where he was sleeping a few hours ago, is already under water. This is how it looks when it goes to hell, Kjell is thinking. To the other four, he says calmly:
– Now, I think we're going down.

Kjell feels completely powerless. The other four men have put on their suits designed to protect against freezing seas. Kjell is standing there in a pair of overalls and heavy boots.

The survival suit which should protect him against the icy water, is located in the cabin in the bow. It's under water. If he goes there, he will go down with the boat. The spare suit that he thought was in the wheel house does not exist.

Kjell is
scared to

He's feeling the fear.

It’s only a matter of minutes until the boats does down by the bow. Kjell's only chance is the raft. He must jump and hope for a miracle.

Kjell knows enough about the body and coldness to understand that death is the most likely outcome.

As the first one, Kjell climbs onto the roof of the wheel house.
Aleksander and the crew follow. That's where the life rafts are. They've got two of them.

They grab the raft on the port side. Kjell feels powerless.
The thought of what awaits him out there in the raging sea draines all his energy.

Finally the raft is inflated and at sea.
But the wind takes hold of it, and it gets stuck between the mast and the wheel house. Another gust sweeps it into the sea.

Now, the starboard side raft is inflated. They pull it towards the side of the boat.

Kjell is staring into the ocean.

The raging, furious Barents Sea. He knows he's got to jump. He's certain that down there, the end is waiting.

03:35 am

Then he dives. It's hell.

He jumps right into the life raft. The others follow.

The rope that connects the raft to the boat should now be cut. There are lots of ropes. Long ropes, a tangle of ropes. If the rope doesn't get cut, the raft will go down with the boat.

Maybe it's the boat that pulls them, maybe it's a wave. It all happens so fast. Suddenly they struggle in the icy water. Kjell's overall is getting soaked and heavy.

Is this the end?

Kjell struggles and sinks, maybe two metres, maybe three, maybe five. Is this where it's going to end?

At the Vardø Radio, the only thing Roger Sund knows is that the crew is in the water. He doesn’t know whether they have managed to put on the survival suits or if they got into the life raft.

Aleksander Lyngberg, the young "Østbanken" skipper is also fighting the waves. He sees the masthead of "Østbanken" going down at high speed. Kjell! He must have gone down with the boat.

Kjell struggles in his leaded overall. He feels that "Østbanken" glides by along his back. A 75 feet solid, reconditioned wooden boat heads toward the bottom of the Barents Sea. If he gets pulled down, it's over.

Kjell is swallowing water, but he doesn't notice. He only feels the waves racing around him, like an inferno. He can't stand many more minutes.

Then he sees the raft and some arms reaching toward him. Kjell gets pulled in by three terrified and unexperienced boys from Riga.

Immediately Kjell discovers that Aleksander is not there. Maksim, Janis and Kristaps have managed to stay in the raft. Kjell and Aleksander have floundered in the icy water. Now Aleksander is gone.

Without the cool headed skipper, they will never make it, Kjell is thinks. Without him, this goes to hell.

Kjell is freezing cold in his soaking wet overall. He tries to accept that one man is lost in the total darkness.

Dead, dead, dead!

Then, they see something floating in the water, a few meters away from the raft. It's Aleksander in his orange survival suit. Dead, dead, dead, Kjell screams. It's a horrible sight. The motionless body. He's absolutely sure that Aleksander hasn't made it.

Aleksander is on his back. He looks around. All of a sudden he sees the raft. With some strokes he approaches, and he gets pulled by the others.

It’s completely dark in the raft. Now they are all gathered. It’s good for the mood, Kjell thinks.

The light inside the raft is gone. The small lights on the suits of Max, Janis and Kristaps are also gone. There must be a helicopter on the way. How will anyone find them when they are floating around in the raging sea without lights?

Now, they are sitting in water up to their arms.

Aleksander knows that Kjell, without a suit, will soon become unconscious in the icy water. They have to sit in a way that can keep his head above water.

Kjell is the only one who has got a watch. The pointers glows in the total darkness. Someone is on their way. He's sure of that. But they are far offshore. How far away is the rescue?

03:45 am

Fifteen minutes after the alert, the Sea King helicopter takes off from Banak.

The Sea King follows the Porsanger fjord, close to sea surface.

Kjell is sitting on the lap of Aleksander. Janis and Maksim keep their arms around Kjell from both sides. Kristaps breathes in his neck. It gives a feeling of warmth. The raft is just big enough for six people. They are five and want it even tighter.

They are thrown from side to side in the darkness. The water bottles they were supposed to share, are gone. They are somewhere in the waves along with flares and emergency rockets.

Then, they are hit by the wave that Aleksander had feared. Once more, Kjell and Aleksander are thrown into the sea. A breaker wave pushes everyone toward the opening of the raft. The zipper gives in. Again, they flounder about the raft and reach it.

It's been 20 minutes since they jumped from the roof of the wheel house. Half an hour, maybe. The raft is full of water. Kjell is ice cold. The pain is horrendous. The legs are almost numb.

Kjell is angry, he cries, he rages.

Freezing cold in total darkness, 110 kilometers offshore in the cold January Barents Sea. Kjell should have been unconscious a long time ago. He doesn't expect to survive.

Kjell turns against Aleksander, and he asks:
– Technically: How long will I survive? Give me the numbers.

Normal people would die after a few minutes. For how long does Kjell have to fight? Aleksander expects Kjell to quickly lose consciousness. But they must not lose hope.

– You should make it for an hour and half. You're in a such good shape. An hour and half, Kjell. – But when does the helicopter arrive? – In an hour, Aleksander says. – Okay, Kjell is thinking. He looks at his watch.

The Sea King faces some showers. They have do to some zigzags. It may delay them for five minutes.

Nils Arne Ro
Nils Arne Ro

Pilot in command, Nils Arne Ro, feels the helicopter hull shaking on the way offshore. Besides him, the crew consists of an officer, a machinist, a systems operator, a rescuer and a doctor.

Rescuer Tage Gilje is sitting in the back on the starboard side, thinking through what might meet him and the crew.

Pilot in command, Nils Arne, will at all costs avoid having to stop for refueling. The Joint Rescue Coordination Center has opened the airports in Berlevåg and Mehamn. Both places are located at the tip to the sea.

The pilot in command chooses Berlevåg. It's the closest airport to the site.

When the mayday was called, three ships changed course toward the last known position of Østbanken. In addition, three coastguard ships were put into the rescue operation. But they are far away.

04:35 am

Now, Kjell has been struggling for an hour. He's so cold. He's in a lot of pain. His feet became numb a long time ago.

Kjell is suffering. Death comes slowly. Thoughts run through his head. The good and the bad in life are reviewed.

The Sea King is in the air for more than an hour when the pilot Nils Arne Ro sees the upset, big, dark and virtually endless surface. There's still no signs of life.

The helicopter is going to be refueled while the engines are running. The fire truck is prepared. The pilot puts the helicopter down in a hurry.

The refueling gets done in ten minutes.

05:05 am

Once more, Kjell looks at his watch. An hour and a half has passed. He knows exactly when he jumped from the boat. Now, it's passed 05 am.

– Is the helicopter arriving, Aleksander? How far away is it?

On board in the helicopter, they only know that the boat has sunk. They may have to pick up five dead bodies from the sea, for all they know

The Barents Sea in a January storm is large, temperamental, hostile and ruthless. Some of the weather conditions they maneuver in doesn't exist anywhere else. It can be intense.

After 17 years in this job, Nils Arne has been scared at work many times. You cannot avoid that, when your task is to save people at stormy seas, hanging in the air hoisting them to safety.

On board in the helicopter, six men are concentrating. It's getting closer. The Joint Rescue Coordination Center has specified a searching area. The six of them are walking through the different scenarios. First things first.

05:15 am

An hour and 40 minutes have passed. The two Latvians keep their arms around Kjell. He feels the breath of Kristaps in his neck.

Maybe the Sea King couldn't take off? Maybe something has happened? Now it's taken too long. It's far out from Banak. But not that far.

Kjell can't feel his legs. Now he's unable to fight anymore.

– Sorry guys. I give up

he says, with his arms around the guys. There and then, the 43-year-old says goodbye.

If he becomes as cold by the heart as he is from the waist down, it's over, he's thinking. He turns over.

No, no, no, the guys say. Kjell hears the hearts pounding hard through the sounds of the storm. They refuse to let him give up.

Then another furious wave shows up

For the third time Kjell is floating in the Barents Sea. It's as cold and dark as the previous times. He's as frightened as before, at least. Now, he can't use his legs anymore.

He flounder with his arms and then the guys grab him and pull him. Onto Aleksander's lap, arms around from both sides. Warm breath in his neck. Never give up, never lose hope.

In the helicopter, the rescuer Tage Gilje is getting ready. He's wearing a dry suit, a back protector, a helmet, various knives and scissors. This time he puts on his special small flippers, to be able to move more easily.

They are heading toward the position given by Aleksander Lyngberg in the first emergency call. Will they find anyone? The sea is enormous. The helicopter has received a searching area, but so far they keep to their initial course.

A weak, howling sound

They know it well. The emergency beacon makes a signal that can't be ignored.

The sound they are waiting for

Three–four minutes is what it takes before the signal from the emergency beacon has become so strong that the pilot Ro chooses to leave the initial course.

It's on

Right after, they see a dim light through the night glasses - in the same direction as the the tracking signal.

They are heading toward the light

05:45 am

At 05.45 am, the helicopter turns toward one of Østbanken's two rafts. The searchlights are put right on it. They see that there's movement inside. It's got be people there.

The helicopter goes down to 22 meters above the sea - right above the raft.

Nils Arne Ro sees how troubled the water is. The biggest waves could be as high as 8 meters.

The machinist and the system operator are getting ready to get Tage hoisted down. The doctor moves forward in the helicopter and is ready to take care of people.

Roger Sund in Vardø receives a message: The 330 Squadron is ready to hoist.

Now, Kjell can hear it! They thought several times that they heard the helicopter. But now it's there. Kjell is absolutely certain.

The sound is far away and they don't understand why it doesn't come closer. Why does nothing happen? Oh my God! Do they leave?

Once Tage Gilje hits the water, he gets caught by the choppy waves. He's surfing them and makes it to the raft without major problems.

The raft is empty and full of water! Just some emergency equipment. This will be a long search. A search for fatalities, Gilje thinks.

Tage gives a sign and gets hoisted up.

When they went for the first raft, they saw a much weaker light in some distance to the right. Maybe there's someone in the sea?

Now, they head slowly toward the light, 22 meters above the waves. The light was weak.

Roger Sund at Vardø Radio receives the message on the empty raft. Negative news spreads on the rescue radio channel.

Kjell clearly hears the sound of a helicopter. Now it gets louder! Aleksander! The helicopter is here! Where are the emergency rockets? They are gone! Damn, damn!

Now, the light on the raft should have guided the rescue team. It should have cast light on the suits of four men.

Only one small light on Alekander's chest has withstood two hours of beating in the winter storm. He gets up carefully and stretches his arm out of the opening of the raft.

Kjell has been in the water for two hours and 10 minutes.

In the helicopter, 22 meters above sea, the crew sees the tiny light through night glasses. Soon, the helicopter searchlights will reach it.

They can see that there is on more raft!

Tage Gilje is hanging from the hoist line and soon he braves the waves towards them. He's very surprised there is a second raft.

He struggles his way toward the raft. Then he comes close enough to take a look inside. He's counting. He sees five faces, five pairs of eyes. Five scared, cold, alive men are looking at him.

Tage is smiling. They are all here. And they are all alive!

Yes! Yes! Yes!

The message from the helicopter crew reaches Roger at Vardø Radio. It all went well out there!

Aleksander can see the moon breaking out from behind the clouds. It doesn't matter how long this takes.

Because they are alive, all five.

The get picked up, one by one, between 05:45 and 06:00 am.

On their way home, they are all in a good mood. There's a lot of feelings. The Sea King heads to Hammerfest and the casualty clinic

Emil (3) gets his dad home

Kjell won the fight against the enormous powers of the sea

Chief Editor and CEO: Gard Steiro