On the Beach: Fire & Footprints

After the proverbial straws were drawn, John Slagill and Sam Batchelder clambered into the Avon and headed for a sheltered beach on Seguam Island. The inflatable rubber boat had a 6.5 horsepower Volvo-Penta outboard. The sailors had a flare gun, binoculars, a .22 rifle, fishing gear, first aid kit, matches and lighters, a space blanket, a knife, two flashlights, two paddles, a can of starter fluid, three gallons of outboard fuel and two life vests.

They also carried 12 empty one-gallon cans and three five-gallon jugs.


With the Red Jacket anchored a quarter-mile off shore, the crew could see the two men drag onto the beach at Finch Cove. They were warmly dressed. Both had thermal underwear, insulated Carhartt outerwear and rain gear. Even so, they built a fire against the November chill. From the Red Jacket, the rest of the crew watched as the men scrambled across the beach, looking for one of several streams dropping precious fresh water into the cove.

When it seemed they were taking too long, skipper Brad Somers called out to them on the ship’s public address system. Then he and the crew stood watch under the ship’s lamps. That night, it snowed on Seguam Island. The storm obscured their view of the beach.

Finch Cove, Seguam Island, Alaska

By next morning, the snow had stopped. But the two men were gone. So was the Avon. Somers snuck the Red Jacket as deep into the cove as he could. The remaining crew scampered onto shore. They found only footprints in the snow. That, and two pieces of trash: a single glove and a plastic sack. Drag marks on the beach told them Slagill and Batchelder had probably launched the Avon sometime during the night.

The captain’s log for November 29, 1990, reads as follows:

Anchor pulled up to beach to recover 2 crew men Sam 
Batchelder & John Slagill to discover them missing. 
Fired 3 rounds from revolver, blow air horn, put on 
siren, no response. Begin search pattern 1/2 nm off 
beach around toward the north west end of Seguam Isl.
Satellite image of Seguam Island, showing Finch Cove

Somers radioed the Coast Guard in Kodiak to report them missing. The Coast Guard called in a C-130 to search through the afternoon. Another plane flew a few hours that evening, looking for a flare. They didn’t spot one.

For three days starting November 29, two Coast Guard C-130’s and a Navy P-3 searched 6,200 square miles. They found no trace of the jugs, the boat, the life jackets or the men. The Coast Guard suspended the search on December 1st. The Red Jacket got permission to return to Dutch Harbor that same day.

Jim Robinson denied responsibility. “I don’t know what happened,” he claimed. “It’s a mystery to me.” The Red Jacket engineer, when asked why they lost two men, had a more colorful answer. “Don’t ask me,” he said. “Shit happens.”

Excerpts from the unpublished original manuscript, “Sailor Take Warning,” by Leland E. Hale. That manuscript, started in 1992 and based on court records from the Alaska State Archive, served as the basis for “What Happened in Craig.”

Additional Sources: “Missing, Presumed Dead,” Anchorage Daily News, Charles Wohlforth, February 17, 1991; “A Man of Several Identities Owner of Boat That Lost Two Of Its Crew Has Had More Than One Life, More Than One Name,” Anchorage Daily News, Charles Wohlforth, February 18, 1991; “2nd Red Jacket Log Tells Different Story,” Anchorage Daily News, Charles Wohlforth, March 7, 1991

Copyright Leland E. Hale (2020). All rights reserved.


Order “What Happened In Craig,” HERE and HERE. True crime from Epicenter Press.

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