Buoyed by Hope and Floating Boots

Montauk lobsterman recalls his 12 hours at sea, ending in dramatic rescue
Despite exhaustion and dehydration, John Aldridge had a smile on July 24 for the crew from Air Station Cape Cod that pulled him from the water after an extensive search off Montauk. U.S. Coast Guard P.O. 3rd Class Ross Ruddell

    “Oh God, I’m going to die,” John Aldridge said was his first thought after he fell off the Anna Mary over 30 miles south of Montauk in the dark early morning of July 24. “I remember almost grabbing the transom,” he said extending his fingers toward the memory during an interview Monday afternoon.

    He had been on watch as Capt. Anthony Sosinski, known as Little Anthony, slept. No yell for help would be heard over the engine as the Anna Mary moved away beyond his reach. “I felt so helpless.”

    “It was the end of my watch. I was about to wake him up. I was getting the refrigeration going, setting up the holding tanks, getting the system working. There were two coolers on top of the hatch. I grabbed the top one with a box hook like I’d done a thousand times, but it was heavy and I remember thinking, ‘This is a bad move.’ The handle snapped and the force of my pull put me over.”

    The thought, “Oh God, I’m going to die” changed to the question, “Is this how I’m going to die?” he said. And then came the answer: “I’m breathing. The water’s warm. I’m living. It was the process of elimination. Survival.”

    “I’m laying on my back with my feet in the air,” he said. He realized that his boots were designed to float. “I took them off and held them to my chest. I don’t know what made me do it, but I was this high out of the water,” he said pointing to his chest. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to stay positive. No negative thoughts.’ I didn’t allow them. The floating boots were a major high.”

    The lobsterman looked within himself as he described the scene: alone on a dark sea in the moonlight with the boat heading away, and, at one point, fins on the surface. “I pulled out my pocket knife. I was looking at the boat in the moonlight. I saw a fin or two. I looked down and saw my feet, my white socks.”

    Asked about the fear of sharks, he said, “I blocked it out. I would think about it every once in a while, but thought, ‘I can’t worry about it until it happens. I can’t waste my energy.’ I live offshore, so I know about the Golden Hour,” he said, meaning dawn, when fish, including the big predators, start to feed. “I’m freaking out on the surface and swimming like a frog,” he said with a laugh full of relief.

    To survive, Mr. Aldridge drew upon his years at sea, first as a deckhand on the dragger Wanderlust, then with Capt. Al Schaffer on the Leatherneck lobster boat, then his own, and finally with his childhood friend Anthony Sosinski on the Anna Mary, which they co-own. They have known each other since kindergarten at Connetquot High School. The fishing community knows Mr. Aldridge as Johnny Load, a nickname carried over from his days as a carpenter, he said, despite rumors to the contrary.

    He said he knew the course the Anna Mary was on, just west of 180 degrees. “It was a full moon and I knew it was in the southwest, and with the boat going away I got a bearing. When the sun came up, I knew that was due east, and the wind was southwest.” He realized, because of his distance from shore, that he was in the area where strings of lobster pots are set with “high fliers,” aluminum poles that can be seen on radar, on one end, and a “ball,” a round float buoy on the other. The strings are set east to west.

    “I’m drifting through, constantly filling my boots with air. I saw the first high-flier about 80 feet away but couldn’t get to it. It was from the Brook C. I knew it was his east end so I had to go to the west end. Had to stem the tide to get to the buoy.” As dawn broke, dozens of petrels, small sea birds, began picking at his face and head. “The petrels were all over me.”

    “I kept thinking, ‘They’re going to get you. Keep doing what you’re going to do.’ There’s too many people who love me for me to die — my nephew, my girlfriend, my family is super, super tight, all my friends. I knew Anthony would know where to look, would not give up. We’re so in tune with each other. He knows my habits, I know his.”

    At about 6:20 a.m., Captain Sosinski awoke and realized his partner, his lifelong friend, was gone. “I wrote down the coordinates to give to the Coast Guard. I analyzed everything on the boat, tried to think where he was, where he fell over.” He said he made himself look in the lobster holding tank. He might have fallen in and drowned. “It was not a good feeling. He wasn’t there.”

    “Did I cry? Absolutely, but I tried to stay focused. I couldn’t fall apart. I’m not the one in the water. I had searched for people that didn’t come back. I heard Joe Hodnick screaming for help on the radio. Staring out at the ocean it brings you back to the humbling things,” Captain Sosinki said, referring to the loss of Joe Hodnick and Ed Sabo when their boat sank in 1993.

    “We got the call at 6:20 that a.m. The first report was he was 5 to 20 miles offshore,” said Senior Chief Petty Officer Jason Walter of Montauk’s Coast Guard Station. “We sent two small boats from here. Two 87-foot cutters, one from Newport, one from Sandy Hook, joined the search.” In addition, two Coast Guard helicopters from the Guard’s Air Station Cape Cod took to the air. Sector Long Island Sound coordinated a search that would expand through the day to nearly 700 square miles of ocean.

    Chief Walter said the group designated Captain Sosinski on the Anna Mary as on-scene coordinator for the fishing boats that came pouring out of Montauk Harbor to join the search. “He had the reference with the fishing boats, and it freed up the Coast Guard.”

    Capt. Charlie Weimar and crew on the dragger Rianda S had set their net in for their first tow of the morning just after 3 a.m. They received the mayday on their radio at 7. “They realized they could get to where they thought he was in about an hour and a half and took off,” Mr. Weimar’s father and co-captain, Chuck Weimar, said. In all, more than a dozen boats and a private plane piloted by George Drago left Montauk Harbor to join the search.

    As the sun rose higher in the sky, Mr. Aldridge was treading water trying to reach the buoyed end of lobster gear. “I finally got to it. I was holding onto it but kept getting pulled under by the tide. I was dealing with the washing, but I finally took my knife out and cut the poly ball loose. I was treading that way for three or four more hours and got to another ball. By that time, 2:30-ish, I cut that one and tied the two balls together and sat with the rope between my legs,” not a comfortable seat, he recalled with a wince.

    “I could see the helicopters to the west of me.”

    “I saw a jet come by in the distance on his way back almost close enough to see me. I thought the wind had switched to the northeast and it was going to blow me farther offshore. I thought I might have to hold out, make it through the night. I knew the weather was changing. I tied myself to the balls. At least they’d find my body.”

    It was getting late. Four of Mr. Aldridge’s family members waited, hopes fading, at the Montauk Coast Guard Station, including his sister, Catherine Patterson, and a brother-in-law, a county sheriff, along with a half dozen fellow sheriffs who had provided a speedy escort to Montauk. The Coast Guard kept Mr. Aldridge’s mother and father updated hourly by phone.

    “We got the call there was a person in the water at 6:30 a.m.,” said Lt. Michael Deal, one of the two helicopter pilots, the other was Lt. Ray Jamros, who, with petty officers Bob Hovey and Ethan Hill, launched from Cape Cod on their seven-hour hunt for the lobsterman.

    “We did four parallel searches, about 100 mile lengths. We were not successful, so we had to put into Groton [Conn.] for fuel and went back out. Coast Guard policy is we can’t fly more than eight hours. We were coming up on seven. We requested one last try, another half hour. We were 10 minutes in and saw him clinging to lobster buoys.” It was just after 3 p.m.

    Mr. Aldridge said: “They flew right over me. I knew they saw me.”

    “We hovered, and the swimmer was deployed,” Lieutenant Deal recalled.

    “He didn’t even put a wetsuit on. He came with his uniform on with mask and fins,” Mr. Aldridge said.

    The swimmer reached him and asked if he was in pain, could he go up in the basket? “I told him I wanted to keep my boots.”

    In the helicopter’s cabin there were high fives all around. “They said ‘You got some will to live,’ ” the rescued lobsterman recalled.

    “He’d had an 11-and-a-half-hour tread. He was sunburned and hypothermic. I think he was in a state of shock. It definitely didn’t have to turn out like it did,” Lieutenant Deal said.

    News of the rescue spread quickly. The Montauk station’s Chief Walter said when the cutter from Sandy Hook came in to refuel, “they got a standing ovation from people on the jetties and fish docks.” The private search boats blew their horns in tribute as they passed the station. “If this had been somewhere else, the Coast Guard would have given the same effort, but the people here dropped everything.”

    Sitting on his porch Monday afternoon after driving upIsland to deliver lobsters and return with fresh bait, Mr. Aldridge said his tongue still “felt funny” from the dehydration. “Our community is amazing,” he said, “plus the Coast Guard. They’re the shit, so professional. The whole act was like clockwork.”

    Would he go back to sea? “Yeah, of course. That’s what we do.”

    Yesterday morning, Anthony Sosinski and John Aldridge were offloading lobsters from the Anna Mary. Captain Sosinki had gone offshore to tend the pots with another childhood friend as mate. Mr. Aldridge said he was taking a few trips off.

    “Look at this,” Mr. Sosinski said. He held up one of the Anna Mary’s high-fliers. “A while ago we were fooling around writing stuff on the floats. When we hauled this one up this trip, look what it says: LOAD LIVES.”

Doug Kuntz
The cooler with the broken handle remained on the deck of the Anna Mary, docked in Montauk last Thursday morning after John Aldridge’s rescue. Doug Kuntz
John Aldridge’s sister Cathy Patterson, with arms raised, celebrated after learning her brother was found safe by a Massachusetts Coast Guard helicopter crew. U.S. Coast Guard P.O. 2nd Class Erik Swanson
“I knew Anthony would know where to look, would not give up,” John Aldridge, left, said of his friend and partner in the Anna Mary, Capt. Anthony Sosinski, as the two offloaded lobsters yesterday morning. Russell Drumm
Russell Drumm