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American rescued from life-raft had run out of food, weathered two big storms

The Sooke fisherman who spotted him at first thought the life-raft was a floating barrel.

A Sooke fisherman who rescued a man adrift in a life-raft 74 kilometres off Tofino last week says he initially thought he was looking at a barrel in the ocean.

Ryan Planes said he could see something red about half a kilometre away. He at first figured it was debris, but he noticed reflective tape, which made him run to get a pair of binoculars for a closer look.

As he peered through the binoculars, Planes could see the barrel was actually a life-raft, and there was someone on board.

“He was waving his paddle. Really waving his paddle. Poor guy,” Planes said in a phone interview Wednesday.

Planes and his crew — captain John Planes, Danny George, Nicholas Keays and Johnathan Planes — were in the middle of setting out their fishing gear and couldn’t immediately head over to pick the man up.

Planes said the man seemed to think they were going to pass him by and set off his last flare to get their attention.

Planes yelled as loudly as he could to let the man know they were coming for him and he eventually settled down. The crew finished setting out their gear and looped around to pick up the castaway.

Planes figured the man must have been caught in a storm the day before and ended up on the water overnight. But when he climbed aboard, the rescued man asked Planes the date.

It turned out he had been missing since setting out on a three-day trip two weeks earlier.

“He was happy — really happy. The first thing he said was: ‘Thank you, thank you.’ He couldn’t even believe it. It was like a dream to him,” Planes said.

The day before, the U.S. Coast Guard had suspended a search for two missing men aboard the fishing vessel Evening, which had left Westport, Washington, on Oct. 12.

The search stretched from central Oregon to near Tofino and covered 36,000 square kilometres using helicopters, infrared cameras and a large aircraft brought down from Alaska.

Once Planes and his fellow crew members on the Ocean Sunset got the man off the life-raft and inside their boat, they fed him two sandwiches, water and Gatorade. Planes said the man ate so much so quickly, he worried he would get sick.

But he was famished after running out of rations on the life-raft, Planes said.

“He could barely stand. He was so shaky,” he said. He was surprised by his own image in the mirror, commenting on how skinny he had become, Planes said.

The man had supplemented the food stock on the four-person life-raft with a salmon he caught using fishing tackle on the raft. He told his rescuers he hadn’t eaten for the first four days on the raft, because he was so freaked out.

He told Planes he zipped up the life-raft door and curled up inside to weather two big storms. “He said he’d open the door and all he’d see was waves.”

He had only the clothes he was wearing when he went out on the boat and a silver emergency blanket to keep warm, Planes said.

On the morning he was found, the man poked his head out of the life-raft door shortly after the sun came up to see if there were any boats nearby, he told Planes. It’s the end of the fishing season, Planes said, and they were the only boat in the area.

“It’s a miracle, the fact that we were even there,” he said.

If it hadn’t been for calm, glassy conditions on the water, Planes said he probably wouldn’t have been able to see the raft.

The crew called the Canadian Coast Guard, which came to pick the man up and take him to the hospital in Tofino.

RCMP officers transferred him to the American border on Friday, where U.S. Coast Guard officials met with him before he flew home to California, said Petty Officer Steve Strohmaier with the U.S. Coast Guard.

Strohmaier said when the man ran out of water on the raft, he was able to collect rainwater using a rain catcher on the roof of the raft, a common feature of life-rafts.

There were crackers or nutrition bars on board that were “very dried out,” the man told investigators. “He couldn’t have them without any water, because he said they were going to be way too hard,” Strohmaier said.

The fate of the second man on the missing vessel is still being investigated, he said, despite reports online that he is presumed dead.

Planes and his crew continued fishing for the next three days after the rescue, bringing in a huge haul of fish.

“He brought us luck,” Planes said with a laugh. “We brought each other luck.”

Planes said he has spoken to the man since he returned to California and they plan to keep in touch.

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