One of San Juan Islands’ own, Katy Stewart, was a key player in organizing efforts to retrieve the Aleutian Isle, a commercial fishing boat that sank Aug. 13. off Sunset Point on the Westside of San Juan Island.
“I got the call when it happened, and came up the following day,” Stewart said.
Inspired by a trip in high school where she served as a filmmaker for a science trip to Honduras, Stewart originally set foot down the filmmaking path.
“My art teacher, Pat Speers, encouraged me to help film the science students,” she said. After graduating from Friday Harbor, and a taste for filming, Steward majored in filmmaking at a California University. It was there she met her husband and ended up dropping out of college. Together they spent time forming their new life and sailing.
“I’ve always been around boats, and love the ocean. Water is kind of my thing,” the former islander explained. Stewart has entered the Race to Alaska five times, finishing four of those. “The fifth time I kind of ate it,” she laughed.
Eventually, Stewart said, she felt guilty for not finishing school, so she went back to Evergreen State University in Olympia where she received her environmental science degree
Combining that love of the ocean with her degree, she now works as a salvage officer at Global Diving and Salvage, which is based out of Seattle.
A majority of the work comes from The U.S. Coast Guard, as with the recovery of the Aleutian Isle.
One of the biggest challenges she faced had nothing to do with the actual recovery. It was finding housing for her crew.
“For the first four nights, two crewmembers had to sleep in the dive chamber, while another slept in a makeshift hammock strung across the back of the tug. The ferries, of course also posed issues. Not wanting to have 15 people eating at Roche Harbor every night, the crew also cooked on the boat.
“The big tug was really like a floating hotel,” Stewart laughed.
Stewart loved working with the many islanders who took part, from the Pintail, the Chevaliers, and Brendan Cowan with the San Juan County Department of Emergency Management.
“For how hard the logistics can be, it went incredibly well,” she said, adding that being able to use those local resources was a huge help.
Canada also stepped in, assisting with traffic control and security. “[The recovery]turned into a joint drill. It was textbook for how everyone should be working together.”
Stewart’s dive teams first began as the boat rested at 150 feet below the surface. When the vessel slid deeper than two hundred feet, Stewart had to reassess her plans.
“Gas diving isn’t as common,” Stewart explained. Gas diving refers to the mixture of air needed to go beyond 150 feet. They used a gas combination called Heliox, which contains a lower ratio of oxygen to reduce the risk of getting oxygen toxicity during deep dives.
Plan B began, and Stewart rebuilt her dive team with a crew of eight skilled gas divers.
Each diver took 10 minutes to get to the bottom, including time to switch to Heliox at 150 feet. They were able to work for 40 minutes and spent one and a half hours in the diving bell ascending to the surface with multiple stops. The diver then spent two hours in the decompression chamber, and. for additional safety, the remained near the chamber for another hour in case problems developed.
Stewart herself is not a commercial diver. She was certified on San Juan Island while in high school. “Commercial diving never crossed my mind,” Stewart said, adding that diving is incredibly hard on the body, and it isn’t usually the kind of thing a person gets into when they are older.
As the boat made its way to the surface, the crew was not whooping and hollering. Weight and safety issues became apparent right away.
“There was a lot of tension,” she explained. “The thing weighed over double what all of the engineerings said it should, so it was more like a slow motion let down as we maxed out our safe working load.”
The teams regrouped to design Plan C, which included bringing the tug with the Aleutian Isle at its side, to Mitchel Bay to drain the water and default the vessel. Sept. 22, over a month after the boat sank, the Aleutian Isle was barged away. “Everyone is relieved now!” Stewart said.
Stewart flew back to her home, husband and two kids in Savannah, Georgia, just as hurricane Ian made land.
“We dodged a bullet,” She assured the Journal later. “It looks like the worse of it is east of us.”