Man Overboard: The Lobsterman Who Mysteriously Vanished

No one could figure out when or where John Aldridge dropped into the ocean, with only his rubber boots and a will to live.

boat at night
Daniel Shea

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.”

man overboard john aldridge
Daniel Shea

The Coast Guard’s headquarters for Long Island and coastal Connecticut is in New Haven. That morning, Petty Officer Sean Davis stood watch at the station’s communications unit. Davis radioed back, asking Sosinski for details. He then turned to Pete Winters, the operations unit watch stander, who was working the Coast Guard’s search-and-rescue computer program, known as Sarops.

By 6:28, the command center had notified search mission commander Jonathan Theel in New Haven and the search coordinator at the district headquarters in Boston, who would have to approve the use of any aircraft in the search. At 6:30, Davis issued a universal distress call on channel 16, asking mariners to keep a sharp lookout.

Davis contacted the Montauk Coast Guard station with instructions to launch all available boats and radioed Air Station Cape Cod to tell them to get airborne as soon as possible.

Winters, meanwhile, was manning the computer. Sarops can generate, in minutes, as many as 10,000 points to represent how far and in what direction a “search object” might have drifted.

The challenge in Aldridge’s case was that the search team had no clear idea of when or where he’d fallen overboard. That created a potential search area larger than Rhode Island, an 1,800-square-mile sweep of ocean that would be almost impossible to cover.

The team in New Haven based its initial calculations on Sosinski’s report that Aldridge was supposed to wake him up at 11:30 p.m. That suggested to them that Aldridge had fallen overboard between 9:30 p.m. and 11:30 p.m., which would put him somewhere between five and 20 miles south of the Long Island coast. Winters input those assumptions, and Sarops came back with an “Alpha Drift” model showing the highest-probability locations, clustered about 15 miles offshore.

The next step for Sarops was to develop search patterns for each boat and aircraft. A little before 8 a.m., New Haven started issuing patterns to a plane, a Jayhawk helicopter, and a 47-foot-long patrol boat from Montauk. The helicopter was piloted by Air Station Cape Cod lieutenants Mike Deal and Ray Jamros. They were joined by two crew members: a rescue swimmer named Bob Hovey and a flight mechanic named Ethan Hill.

The Coast Guard search was off to an excellent start. The only problem, of course, was that everyone involved was searching in entirely the wrong place: Aldridge did not fall into the water at 10:30 p.m.; he fell at 3:30 a.m. Almost 30 miles south of where the Jayhawk crew was carefully searching for him, Aldridge was clinging to his boots in the cold water.

Back on the Anna Mary, Sosinski had been having second thoughts about the search area. After his initial conversation with Davis, he inspected the boat more carefully. One of the hatches was open, and the pumps were on, sluicing cool ocean water through the lobster tanks. In the summer months, Aldridge and Sosinski would start filling the tanks when their boat reached the 40-fathom curve, the line on maritime charts that marks where the ocean’s depth hits 40 fathoms, or 240 feet, which is the point at which the water temperature tends to drop. Then Sosinski found the broken handle on the ice chest, and he realized exactly how Aldridge had fallen overboard.

Together Sosinski and Winters came up with a new theory: Aldridge had gone overboard somewhere between the 40-fathom curve, about 25 miles offshore, and the location of the Anna Mary’s first trawl, about 40 miles offshore. At 8:30 a.m., Winters passed this new information to Jason Rodocker, a petty officer and an expert in Sarops. Rodocker punched in the new variables, and the program spit out a second set of search patterns.

The news about Aldridge was also spreading through Montauk’s fishing community, and 21 commercial boats volunteered to help. Davis couldn’t communicate with all 21 at once on top of the Coast Guard craft he was directing, so Winters hit on an idea: They would put Sosinski in charge of sending out the search patterns for the volunteer fishing fleet.

Sosinski focused his energy on the commercial boats, but none of it felt like enough. Aldridge had left his driver’s license on the Anna Mary, and every once in a while, Sosinski would pick it up. He’d stare at it and say out loud, “Where are you, John?”

Aldridge and Sosinski first fished together as boys, riding their bikes to a spot they’d found under Sunrise Highway in Oakdale, New York. Once Aldridge joined Sosinski in Montauk, they fished for years on separate boats. When a beat-up lobster boat called the Anna Mary came up for sale, they decided to pool their money and buy it together.

When the sun rose on July 24, Aldridge gave himself a new assignment: Find a buoy. That way he would be more visible to the searchers, and it would be easier to stay afloat.

For a couple of hours, he drifted and looked. Finally, Aldridge spotted a buoy about 200 feet away and began swimming. His strokes were short and slow with the boots under his arms and the current against him. Each time he looked up, the buoy was farther away.

Aldridge stopped swimming, realizing that he was becoming dangerously exhausted. He was able to see that the buoy he had been swimming toward had a flag on top of it, which lobster fishermen attach to the west end of their strings. Lobster traps are always laid out along an east-west line, so Aldridge figured that a mile or so east, he would find the other end of that string of traps, and with it, another buoy. He started swimming east.

Even with the current, swimming was painful work. His legs were cramping. He couldn’t feel his fingers. The sun, rising higher in front of him, was blinding. After more than an hour, he spotted a buoy, and using the current, he was able to angle himself directly into it. He grabbed the rope and held on.

By noon, Aldridge had been in the water for almost nine hours. He was starting to shiver uncontrollably. Sea shrimp were fastening themselves to his T-shirt and shorts. Storm petrels swarmed around occasionally, squawking and diving.

Aldridge could see the rescue aircraft overhead. Even if they’d figured out more or less where he fell in, they hadn’t taken into account the possibility that he’d stopped drifting and snagged a buoy. He had to get himself farther east. He pulled his knife out of his pocket and cut the rope that held the buoy in place. He tied it around his wrist and began swimming.

man overboard on rocks
Daniel Shea

He willed himself to keep kicking until he reached another buoy. He untied the rope from his wrist and tied it to the anchor rope underneath the new buoy. Now he had two buoys connected by a few feet of rope. He straddled the rope, repositioned the boots under his arms, and waited. He knew he couldn’t survive another swim. If he was still in the water at sundown, he decided, he would tie himself to the buoy. That way, his parents would have something to bury.

The crew in the Jayhawk helicopter had been staring at the water since about 7 a.m., and by early afternoon, they were growing discouraged. The crew finished another search pattern—their third of the day—and requested a new one. From the command center, Davis radioed coordinates, and at 2:46 p.m., the helicopter started moving again.

Twelve minutes later, Lieutenant Jamros called out, “Mark! Mark! Mark!”—protocol when an object has been spotted. There was John Aldridge, sitting on the rope between his two buoys, clutching his boots and waving frantically. After Aldridge was safely in the helicopter, huddled under blankets, Lieutenant Deal flipped the radio to channel 21 and called Sosinski, who was staring out at the water, still looking for Aldridge. “Anna Mary,” Deal said, “we have your man. He’s alive.”

In the weeks after Aldridge’s rescue, I talked to several local fishermen about the search, and most of them teared up as they recounted the story. The inescapable risk of their jobs goes mostly unspoken in their lives, and the improbable fact that Aldridge hadn’t drowned somehow underscored that risk even more.

The person who seems least shaken by the experience is John Aldridge. He has no nightmares, no flashbacks, no fear when he goes out on the water to work. The Coast Guard pilots and the men in New Haven express pride when they talk about their work that day, and when Aldridge talks about it, he sounds the same way: “I always felt like I was conditioning myself for that situation. Thank God they saved me. But I felt I did my part.”

The New York Times (January 5, 2014), Copyright © 2014 by The New York Times Co., nytimes.com.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest