Wrangell woman recounts surviving 24 hours on a tiny rock island after boat wreck

a woman and a parrot
Kelsey Leak survived a boat wreck on Prince of Wales Island last month, but lost her boyfriend, Arne Dahl and her parrot, Petrie. (Photo courtesy of Kelsey Leak)

Last month, Kelsey Leak lost a lot. First she lost her pet parrot, Petrie, of seven years. Then she lost her boyfriend, Arne Dahl, when his fishing boat grounded and sank near Prince of Wales Island and they tried to swim to safety. She also spent a harrowing 24 hours wet and cold, waiting for rescue.

“I was sitting on that rock thinking, ‘I don’t know who’s gonna believe this,’” Leak said.

Dahl was a fisherman — a power troller. His boat, the 39-foot Randi Jo, was like a second home to the couple. Dahl and Leak had been dating for about a year, but their love had bloomed quickly.

“He came for dinner, and he didn’t leave for six months,” Leak said. “It was just a whirlwind.”

The boat wreck happened on a clear, sunny day near Point Baker on Nov. 27. Leak said there was calm wind and the waters were foam. She and Dahl took the boat out to gather firewood. On the way back to town, Leak curled up in the wheelhouse to take a nap with Petrie, her parrot, tucked into her shirt. Her Golden Retriever, Mili, was also with them.

What happened next was sudden.

“I woke up to being face-first slammed into the side door in the wheelhouse,” Leak said. “The door busted open, and I landed outside on the walkway. The boat just came to a dead halt.”

Dahl told Leak they’d hit a rock. They had a skiff along as well and used that to check out the situation. When they got around to the front of the boat, they saw a huge hole in the port side. They knew it would sink.

Dahl climbed back onto the boat to get his important papers while Leak stayed in the skiff. She had just learned how to drive it.

“I remember him running to the bow and he’s like, ‘Come on, come on, come get me,’” Leak said. “My brain is trying to work, and I got up to the midship line again, and a wave pushed the skiff up under the lip of the sinking ship.”

The skiff sank, and the boat was sinking, too. The pair had to swim. To their left, they saw a tiny rock island called West Rock.

“My coat started to fill with water,” Leak said. “I was trying to get it off, and I went underwater. And I remember opening my eyes under the water and looking for my zipper.”

When she got back to the surface, she saw that her parrot was struggling.

“I got in my shirt and I took Petrie out, and she was just gasping,” she said. “And I tried to salt-shaker the water out of her, and I was trying to swim with her, and he said, ‘You have to let her go, I need you to swim with me.’ And I just let her drift off, and I couldn’t even fit that in my brain,” Leak said. “I took a deep breath and just put my face to the water and just started swimming as hard as I could.”

Point Baker
A map of the Point Baker area on Prince of Wales Island, with West Rock marked.

Dahl, Leak, and her dog Mili made it to West Rock. It’s about 500 feet offshore, and Leak said it was about the size of a small living room. But it was high enough to stay above the tide. It had a concrete slab marker on top with reflectors and a light.

After resting for a moment, the situation started to hit Dahl.

“He’s like, ‘Oh my god, there goes my boat, we lost our skiff,” Leak said. “And then he paused and he’s like, ‘I just killed Petrie.’ Like, ‘Oh my God.’ And he looked at me. And then I can see his gaze lock on Joe Mace Island. And he was like, ‘We can do that. We can get over there. If we can get over there, we can go get help.’”

But to Leak, the distance looked at least twice as long as what they’d just swam. She’d had a bit of survival training. And her gut told her not to leave that rock. She tried to convince Dahl they should stay, but he insisted.

“’You stay. Promise me you’ll stay right there. I’ll come for you,’” Leak said, remembering Dahl’s words.

She watched him swim out, his head disappearing in the distance. And then it was just her and her dog Mili.

Leak knew that in a survival situation, she could not let emotion take over. So she told herself that Dahl must have arrived safely on the next island.

“OK, he got out, he found Petrie,” Leak said, “They found some random bottle of Jameson and they’re just making fire on the beach getting warm. They’re having a party, they’re gonna come for me first thing in the morning.”

Leak and Milli faced a long, cold night. Leak’s clothes were still wet. They were synthetics, so they kept her somewhat warm. But it got down to around 26 degrees that night.

“It was a cold, hard night,” Leak said. “I couldn’t feel my feet. My whole body hurt the next day from shivering.”

Sea lions kept approaching, and Mili chased them away. Leak talked to them, naming the biggest one Brutus. She did toe scrunches to keep her feet working. She told Mili they had to stay positive. She tallied all the people waiting for her on the other side of the water. She sang songs in her head.

“Nickelback came on in my head, like ‘If today was your last day,’” Leak said.

Leak and Mili stayed awake all night. They cuddled on the hard rock till the sun broke. Leak could see a house across the water. She stood on top of the concrete block.

“I was waving my hands from 7:30 until 2 p.m. and trying to get somebody’s attention,” Leak said. “I had some moments on the rock that I was — I mean, it was daylight. I’m starting to process my grief.”

In the afternoon, she realized she might be out there another night, so she climbed down and started wringing out her clothing.

“That’s when I heard like putt-putt-putt of the boat,” Leak said. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, somebody’s here’ and I looked over and see this big white boat with two skiffs towing behind it. I ran down all those rocks barefoot and I was jumping up and down, waving like a crazy person.”

The boat was the Dell II, coming back from a hunting trip. As soon as people found Leak, the search for Dahl started.

“Suddenly there were like skiffs everywhere,” Leak said. “We looked until way past dark, way longer than we should. The weather was starting to get crappy. I mean, it’s so hard to give up.”

The U.S. Coast Guard and Wrangell Search and Rescue searched the area for hours, but no one found Dahl. Leak stayed in the area with friends of Dahl’s and they mourned together.

“I’m so happy I had the time with him that I did,” said Leak. “I had a year with Arne, and it’s a huge loss. But there are people out there that have known him his whole life, and they’re hurting too.”

Leak lost two of her loved ones to the ocean that day. But the positivity she cultivated on that rock island that kept her going until morning — it stuck. And it’s helping her get through the loss and focus on what she does have.

Leak is now back in Wrangell, where her family lives.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Kelsey Leak grew up in Wrangell. She grew up in Kansas, but her family currently lives in Wrangell.

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