Looking back, John Aldridge knew it was a stupid move. When you’re alone on the deck of a lobster boat in the middle of the night, miles off the tip of Long Island, you don’t take chances. But he had work to do: He needed to start pumping water into the Anna Mary’s holding tanks to chill so that when he and his fishing partner and best friend, Anthony Sosinski, reached their first string of traps a few miles farther south, the water would be cold enough to keep the lobsters alive for the return trip.
In order to get to the tanks, he had to open a metal hatch on the deck. And the hatch was covered by two 35-gallon Coleman coolers—giant plastic insulated ice chests that he and Sosinski had filled before leaving the dock in Montauk harbor seven hours earlier. The coolers, full, weighed about 200 pounds, and the only way for Aldridge to move them alone was to snag a box hook onto the plastic handle of the bottom one, brace his legs, lean back, and pull with all his might.
And then the handle snapped.
Suddenly Aldridge was flying backward, tumbling across the deck toward the back of the boat, which was wide open, just a flat, slick ramp leading straight into the black ocean. The water hit him like a slap. He went under, took in a mouthful of Atlantic Ocean, and then surfaced, sputtering. He yelled as loud as he could, hoping to wake Sosinski. But the diesel engine was too loud, and the Anna Mary, on autopilot, was already out of reach.
Aldridge, 45, had been a fisherman for almost two decades, and he knew that the first thing you do if you fall into the ocean is kick off your boots—they’re dead weight. But as he treaded water, Aldridge realized that his boots were lifting him up, weirdly elevating his feet and tipping him backward.
Aldridge reached down and pulled off his left boot. Straining, he turned it upside down, raised it up until it cleared the waves, and then plunged it back into the water, trapping a boot-size bubble of air inside. He tucked the inverted boot under his left armpit. Then he did the same thing with the right boot. It worked; they were like twin pontoons, and treading water with his feet alone was now enough to keep him stable and afloat.
The boots gave Aldridge a chance to think. He tried to take stock: It was about 3:30 a.m. on July 24, 2013. The North Atlantic water was a chilly 72 degrees. Dawn was two hours away. Aldridge set a goal: Stay afloat till sunrise. Once the sun came up, he knew, someone was bound to start searching for him.
It was a little after 6 a.m. when Anthony Sosinski awoke. Shipmate Mike Migliaccio first saw that Aldridge was missing and yelled for Sosinski. Sosinski tried to puzzle it out: Before he went to sleep at 9 p.m., he told Aldridge to wake him at 11:30 p.m. Now it was past dawn, and they were more than 15 miles past their traps. What could have happened?
The men looked everywhere on the 45-foot-long boat before Sosinski ran to the VHF radio. He switched to channel 16, the distress channel, and at 6:22 a.m., he called for help, his voice shaking: “Coast Guard, this is the Anna Mary. We’ve got a man overboard.”