Having written two books about the perils of Alaskan fishing and another one about a harrowing Coast Guard rescue, Spike Walker had a good reputation for chronicling tales of heroism in gale force winds.
"I've got the contract on Alaskan high seas adventures," Walker said, so he wasn't surprised when his publisher, St. Martin's Press, called him several years ago with another idea for a book.
The result is "On The Edge of Survival: A Shipwreck, A Raging Storm, and the Harrowing Alaska Rescue That Became a Legend."
The book was released late last year, but a heart attack kept Walker from promoting it. He discussed the book this week at the Wordfest gathering in Longview.
"On the Edge of Survival" is a great read for anyone who has fished on the ocean or spent time in Alaska. The book is also a tribute to the risks Coast Guard helicopter crews take to save the lives of sailors who make foolish mistakes.
As Walker put it, "What those Coasties do out there is beyond comprehension."
"On the Edge of Survival" gives an hour-by-hour chronology of the wreck of the 738-foot freighter Selendang Ayu in December, 2004. The ship, en route from Seattle to China, lost power in its engine and drifted toward Unalaska Island in the Aleutian chain.
A sea-going tug tried to pull the freighter but its line broke. In the midst of a horrendous storm with 30-foot-tall waves and winds gusting to 70 mph, Coast Guard helicopters flew to the freighter to hoist the 26 crew members up in a rescue basket, one at a time.
As it turned out, the sailors weren't in a hurry to be rescued — and at first their captain didn't urge them along. As the weather worsened, a chopper crew picked up nine of the men and deposited them on a nearby Coast Guard cutter. But during continuing rescue efforts, a huge wave hit the helicopter, killing both of its engines. It plummeted into the 38 degree water.
The Coast Guard crewmen who found themselves bobbing in the swells and the men left aboard the freighter truly found themselves on the edge of survival as another chopper came to their aid.
To document the story, Walker interviewed all the crewmen involved, taping their talks on cassettes. "I'd feel like a psychotherapist — or sometimes just psycho," he said. "You really have to gain their confidence."
Most of the rescuers were willing to talk, though one who felt guilty he hadn't been able to save more lives hesitated. (Walker explained that the Coast Guard trains its helicopter crew members that they're never to dive back into a sinking chopper, even if people are still aboard.)
Walker blames the ship captain for the loss of life because he didn't ask that his crew be rescued sooner. The captain, who didn't want to be interviewed for the book, probably was in denial that he would lose his ship, Walker said.
After the interviews, Walker typed up the notes on his trusty 1985 Apple IIe computer. "It's great for word processing," he said. "No viruses, no e-mail." He worked from a 300-foot-long scroll of notes taped together.
It took Walker more than three years to document and write the book, working "six days a week, 16 hours a day."
Working long days is nothing new for Walker, be it on a fishing boat or at an aging computer. His career has been a mix of rugged outdoors jobs and sharing the stories with his readers.
Walker, 60, grew up near Yacolt, and has recently moved back there.
"I was raised in a family of storytellers," he said. "Even at 8 years old I was telling my dad's stories better than he could."
Walker set a national junior college record in shot put, and placed third in the Pac 8 championships while at Oregon State.
Following a stint as a teacher, his big biceps helped when he went to work on Alaskan king crab boats in the 1970s. He also worked as a logger and a commercial diver.
As much as logging and working on a lurching crab boat deck, Walker loves reading. He told fellow authors at Wordfest how he draws inspiration from writers like John Steinbeck, James Michener and Ernest Hemingway.
"I love the rhythm of words colliding," he said. "If you do that well enough, the reader cannot forget."
His book "Working on the Edge," which came out in 1991, detailed the king crab business in the 1980s. Walker followed up in 1997 with "Nights of Ice," which was about crab fishing disasters.
In "Coming Back Alive," published in 2001, the author focused on a single disaster and its gut-wrenching helicopter rescue.
Walker's book sales got a boost in 2007, when The Discovery Channel hired him as a consultant for its series "After the Catch." He spent several days in a Seattle bar talking about fishing while the cameras rolled.
The 2009 TV movie "The Deadliest Sea" was based on a story about a shipwreck he told in "Working on the Edge." Two years ago, he attended the movie premiere in Hollywood.
Walker recalled wistfully how he made $60,000 in 42 days of crabbing in 1978. In those days, he said, "you had eight bars in Kodiak, 12 churches and two cathouses. If you visited all of them you had a pretty well-rounded life."
The years of rugged work and dramatic stories eventually took their toll.
Last November, the day after Walker signed books at Hump's Restaurant in Clatskanie, he suffered a heart attack. Several days later in Southwest Washington Medical Center in Vancouver, his heart stopped.
"It took five minutes to bring me back," he said. He's facing $250,000 in medical bills, he said.
Sales of his new book have been good, but Walker writing is no pathway to wealth. "It's very difficult to make it in the arts financially," he said. When one of his books sells for $16, about 50 cents ends up with him, he said.
"You have to live extremely frugally to make it as a free-lance writer," said Walker, who several years ago was living in a Commerce Avenue apartment.
He will not give up his calling, and his next direction will be fiction. "I have both feet on the ground," Walker said. "I'm clean and sober. I love the writing road."
"On The Edge of Survival: A Shipwreck, A Raging Storm, and the Harrowing Alaska Rescue That Became a Legend," by Spike Walker. Published by St. Martin's Press. $24.99.