We brave Alaska’s icy waters with the heroic swimmers of Kodiak Air Base.

Author: Andreas Rottenschlager | Photography: Justin Bastien


Alaska, 8 a.m.: It’s a chilly May morning, and rescue swimmer O’Brien Starr-Hollow stands in front of the U.S. Coast Guard base in Kodiak, squinting into the sun, which sits low in the sky.

Survival training for the team is set to start in a few minutes. “We’re practicing the Star Run,” says the 42-year-old, who is dressed in shorts and a T-shirt. Starr-Hollow is a man with the face of a boy, but the body of a triathlete.

The Star Run is a mountain course that all the Kodiak rescue swimmers must tackle. A gravel path with spruce trees on either side, it winds its way up Old Womens Mountain in narrow turns. The course ends at the town’s memorial to fallen military personnel—a five-pointed steel star.

The rescue swimmers must run a quarter mile, gaining 377 feet in altitude, four times in a row as a drill. It’s not uncommon to see one of the runners vomit by the time they reach the monument, yet Starr-Hollow has brought along an item of fitness equipment to today’s training session that will increase the challenge further.

“It’s a mooring line,” he says, holding the frayed end in the air. “We use it to tie a cutter to the landing stage.” The rope is as thick as an anaconda, 50 feet long and more than 100 pounds. Starr-Hollow plans to lug it along as he runs uphill.

Rescue swimmer O’Brien Starr-Hollow (left) on a training run in Kodiak, carrying his 110-pound mooring rope.

“It’s a mooring line,” he says, holding the frayed end in the air. “We use it to tie a cutter to the landing stage.” The rope is as thick as an anaconda, 50 feet long and more than 100 pounds. Starr-Hollow plans to lug it along as he runs uphill.

“The point of the exercise is to not give up,” he says. Starr-Hollow lifts the end of the rope up onto his shoulders and dashes off past the spruce trees, trailing it behind him like an animal’s tail. It leaves a drag mark in the gravel.

This is just a morning workout for Starr-Hollow, which says a lot about the demands of his profession. As an Aviation Survival Technician with the U.S. Coast Guard, his will and stamina might determine whether or not he makes it to the end of the day. His job is to descend from a helicopter hovering above the ocean and save all those who have gotten into difficulties in American waters and ended up shipwrecked.

Coast Guard rescue swimmers have to lug fishermen weighing 220 pounds and wearing slippery dry suits into rescue baskets, and battle through waves the size of a house during Arctic storms.

The training that rookie rescue swimmers go through is as tough as anything else the U.S. military has to offer, with 18 weeks of water drills at a swim school in North Carolina, followed by a seven-week course in emergency medical services. The dropout rate at the swim school is more than 50 percent; not many can cope with the combination of endurance swimming, psychological stress and little sleep. Some years every recruit fails.

On the hill overlooking Kodiak, Starr-Hollow is hauling his mooring line up to the monument for the second time. He’s now clutching the end of the rope in both hands, his gaze locked on the steel star. Behind him, five other rescue swimmers are torturing themselves as they make their way up the mountain. Many of them are wiry and tenacious; some have a wrestler’s physique.

Up on the hill, you have the best view of the U.S. Coast Guard base. The white roofs of the hangars reflect the rays of the morning sun, and the dark gray ocean starts just beyond the airstrip. The water stretches as far as the eye can see.

Training off Kodiak Island: A U.S. Coast Guard flight mechanic and his colleague in a dinghy check the guiding line during a training run.

Kodiak Island is an hour’s flight from Alaska’s largest city, Anchorage, in the North Pacific. It is a mountainous island with thick coniferous forests. Fat pickup trucks with bull bars trundle up and down the few roads. The sportswear store in the island’s main town, Kodiak, sells pepper spray to ward off attacks by brown bears.

The Coast Guard Air Station occupies one whole bay on the east of the island. There are three hangars for helicopters and transport planes and a huge, wood-paneled central command building. The airstrip runs right alongside the ocean. It’s the gateway to the most dangerous waters in the U.S.

From Kodiak, rescue helicopters fly north to the Arctic Ocean, where ice floes the size of football fields can be seen floating in the water. To the west, the Coast Guard watches over the Bering Sea, where Arctic storms transform the waves into dark blue walls. Air Station Kodiak is responsible for an area of some 4 million square miles—such a large expanse that on some days there are two different weather systems within its confines.

It’s 11 a.m. Starr-Hollow heads through the helicopter hangar, having just got out of the shower. He finished his workout half an hour ago with some chin-ups. Oh, and he had the mooring line around his neck the whole time.

This life suits Starr-Hollow. The son of a Navy SEAL, he grew up in Montana and studied natural resources management. While at boot camp, he played the saxophone for the Coast Guard band. He has now been flying out into the Bering Sea for eight years, longer than any other rescue swimmer on the base.

Night shift at the Kodiak hangar: Flight mechanics do maintenance on the tail unit of a Jayhawk.

The Coast Guard crews respond both day and night. If human life is on the line, they’ll go out in the worst weather imaginable. Pilots talk of whiteouts, where it’s snowing so hard that all the search lights will reflect is snow. From the cockpit, it looks like you’re flying through a snowball.

“You have to treat everyone with respect. Look your colleagues in the eye. Give honest feedback.”

The standard crew on board a Sikorsky MH-60T Jayhawk helicopter consists of a pilot, co-pilot, flight mechanic and rescue swimmer. The pilot steers the helicopter, the co-pilot calculates fuel use, and the flight mechanic operates the rope winch at the door on the right-hand side. The rescue swimmer hangs on the end of a steel cable that’s as thick as a finger.

“Good communication between all the members of the team is vital for survival,” Starr-Hollow explains.

Rescue teams operate according to a “just culture” principle, a system of trust and accountability that is also used in the world of medicine. The aim is to create an environment where you can comment on mistakes without fear of punishment, in order to improve the performance of the whole team.

“I recently noticed after a mission that my flashlight was broken,” Starr-Hollow says. “I hadn’t checked before we took off. Nobody knew of my mistake. But I brought it up at the debriefing. Admitting to a mistake is a weight off your mind. And at the same time it reminds all your colleagues to always check their flashlights.”

Just culture is a great system for improving at whatever job you do, says Starr-Hollow. “Say you’ve annoyed a client because you’ve used the wrong form of address in an email. If you keep silent about your mistake, the same thing might happen to your colleagues. But if you share it, then the whole team profits from the gain in knowledge.”

These are the fundamental Coast Guard principles that Starr-Hollow quotes: Always be ready to make demands of each other every day. Perform every task, however small, with care. Like sewing a harness, for example.

“Every rescue swimmer is trained how to use a sewing machine, because we maintain the cargo parachutes for the Coast Guard,” says Starr-Hollow. And, true enough, there are four sewing machines on workbenches in the studio on the first floor of the hangar. Each of these machines has a crimson cloth cover. The bravest men in the Bering Sea have tailor-made the covers and sewn on U.S. Coast Guard logos.

The quickest way to get to the scene of the action: A Coast Guard rescue swimmer leaps from a helicopter.

Down in the Air Station Kodiak pool the next day, training is taking place. Rescue swimmer Jon Kreske is sitting on the edge of the 15-foot dive tower, preparing to jump into the water below. He’s practicing free fall from the helicopter, the quickest way to get to the scene if the rescue mission is happening in calm seas.

Kreske stretches his legs out in front of him and pushes himself off the side forcefully with both hands. He lands in the water feet first. Although pool training isn’t ever going to be as extreme and potentially hazardous an experience as a real-life sea rescue, it’s still far from easy. Kreske, who is nine years younger than Starr-Hollow, still remembers swim school well.

“They wake you up at 3 a.m. and make you work out for four hours,” he recalls. “Then you have to rescue six people playing accident victims in a pitch-black swimming pool. Two have stopped moving and the other four are flailing about.”

A scout and competitive swimmer in his youth, Kreske has broad shoulders and an incredibly gentle voice. Despite his obvious strength, he instantly comes across as caring. How did he cope with the brutalities of rescue swimmer school?

“It’s 90 percent mental,” says Kreske. Turns out you don’t need to be a bodybuilder or be able to swim particularly fast to become a rescue swimmer. “The people training you have just one aim: They want to see if you crack under pressure.

A flight mechanic (right) on board the MH-65 Dolphin. The rescue teams fly hundreds of miles out into the Pacific.

One exercise they’ve developed to help answer this question is the “bullpen,” which is essentially a panic drill in the water.

The recruit swims, with his eyes covered, toward a group of trainers, who have formed a circle at the deep end of the pool.

Once the blind recruit reaches the circle, the first instructor forces his snorkel down into the water. He then throws himself on the recruit, like a panicking, drowning man, clutching his arms and pulling him down to the bottom of the pool.

The recruit has to free himself from the instructor’s tight grip and then get them both safely back to the surface.

Once the recruit surfaces, the next instructor ambushes him and pulls him back under the water. The attacks are repeated. Three times. Five times. Seven times. There’s no set end to the drill.

“They want to see if you’ll give up,” says Kreske. Kreske didn’t give up. Instead, he developed a strategy for the long days of basic training. “I divided my working day up into sections,” says Kreske. “During the morning drills, you don’t think further ahead than breakfast. You block everything else out. At breakfast, you only think as far ahead as the end of breakfast.

“After that comes your first of several goals: getting through the first pool session. This method of dividing the days helps you complete huge tasks that, if they were tackled together, would put too much pressure on you mentally.”

Kreske says his strategy works for elite training, too, and for working days that include four-hour meetings. “But even the best training is only a pale shadow of the reality,” explains Kreske. “Ask Starr-Hollow about what happened to him.”

Rescue swimmer Jon Kreske in the training pool at the Coast Guard Air Station: “They want to see if you crack under pressure.”

At 3 a.m. on Easter morning 2008, Starr-Hollow was asleep in a camp bed in the barracks on St. Paul Island, a Coast Guard outpost in the Bering Sea, approximately 680 miles west of Kodiak, when he was rudely awakened by a rescue pilot. Starr-Hollow was part of a team keeping watch from the base during the crabbing season.

Eight minutes earlier, a trawler, the Alaska Ranger, had put in an SOS call. There was a leak at the ship’s bow. The Alaska Ranger was sinking 230 miles south of St. Paul Island.

Starr-Hollow leaped out of bed. “I knew right after the briefing that the situation was going to be serious,” he remembers. “In most cases, we’re rescuing crews of just three to five men from small fishing vessels. But the Alaska Ranger was a 189-foot trawler; there were 47 people working on board.”

Starr-Hollow had his things packed within minutes, and he and his pilot dashed to the airstrip in an SUV. It was a pitch-black night, snow was falling and the temperature was -11°F.

Once in the hangar, the pilot and co-pilot climbed into the cockpit of the Jayhawk helicopter and put on their night-vision goggles. Starr-Hollow squeezed in next to the mechanic in the hold at the back, which is no bigger than the interior of an SUV.

The Jayhawk was hovering over the scene of the accident just after 5 a.m. But there was no sign of the stricken vessel, the Alaska Ranger. “The ship had sunk,” Starr-Hollow explains. “The crew were strewn a mile wide across the ocean. All you could see were the flashing lights on their life jackets in the water. They were like the lights on a runway at night.”

Starr-Hollow donned his equipment: dry suit, life jacket, radio, flares, GPS, flippers and snorkel.

Crash course: Rescue swimmers in Kodiak show a pilot how to get out of the helicopter cockpit underwater.

The Alaska Ranger’s sister vessel, the Alaska Warrior, and the U.S. Coast Guard cutter wouldn’t arrive at the scene until an hour later. The helicopter crew were on their own and there were 47 people stranded below them in the water. According to the instruction manual, there’s enough room in the helicopter’s hold for five survivors. Or, in case of an emergency, as many as you can somehow squeeze on board.

The mechanic started the winch and clicked the metal hook at the end of the rope into the steel ring on Starr-Hollow’s chest harness. “He pointed to a flashing light,” says Starr-Hollow.

“We began the mission with the man that the current had taken furthest away.” The rescue swimmer descended into the ocean. He was waist-deep in water as he grabbed the survivor. He attached the fisherman to his chest harness. He gave a thumbs-up to the helicopter, the signal the flight mechanic had been watching out for. Both men were winched aboard. Starr-Hollow helped the survivor into the hold.The mechanic then pointed to the next flashing light in the water.

Starr-Hollow would pull 16 men out of the Pacific that night. The crew on board the Coast Guard cutter, the USCGC Munro, and the Alaska Warrior saved another 26. Five seamen didn’t survive the night.

The Alaska Ranger mission remains one of the largest rescue assignments in the 226-year history of the U.S. Coast Guard. “The mission went on until mid-morning,” recalls Starr-Hollow, sitting in the classroom of the Coast Guard base. Outside, flight mechanics are pushing a Jayhawk onto the airstrip.

Snow-white mountaintops glisten at the other end of the bay. “You function like a machine during a rescue mission,” he says. “You keep on going. You can’t give up. It’s like when you’re carrying a mooring rope up a mountain.”

How has his job changed him?

“You understand that we’re all only human,” says Starr-Hollow. “It’s changed my view of people. Anybody can get into a life-or-death situation, and no matter their place in life, their life matters. They all have somebody who will miss them. We all have that in common.”

Tricky work: Depending on the conditions, the helicopter hovers between 10 and 190 feet above the scene.

Tricky work: Depending on the conditions, the helicopter hovers between 10 and 190 feet above the scene.