“You couldn’t get those two boys to sit still for too long, they were real adventurers,” recalls Lesley Ashby, the mother of Cole Rutzer, a 22-year-old Westport man whose body was found July 3 on the beach of a remote island near Kodiak Island, Alaska. He and his longtime friend and fishing boat crewmate Dylan Furford had taken a skiff from the larger boat to explore the island. Furford is missing and the Coast Guard has suspended its search.
The two were part of a four-man crew on the Westport-based Pacific Dynasty, fishing for Dungeness crab. Rutzer’s dad, Greg, is the captain and his cousin, Brent Gilbertson, was the other crew member. The boat had dropped crab pots and had some down time so Cole Rutzer and Furford, also in his early 20s, had gone to Tugidak Island, taking Trigger, Cole’s dog. The dog survived and a family friend said she heard that when a search and rescue crew found Rutzer’s body, Trigger wouldn’t let them get close.
“They were very busy. There was never a dull moment with those kids,” Ashby said, “whether it was motorcycles, fishing or hunting. They were always smiling and very energetic. Cole loved his family and his animals, especially his dog Trigger. … They brought their fishing poles and they were going to have some fun.”
The two men grew up in the fishing community and had been working on boats since they were teenagers, friends said. Their social media pages are filled with photos of fishing, hunting and motor sports.
“He had been on boats since he could walk,” Furford’s mother, Nicole Kinnaman-Caldwell, said of her son. “He loved it. When I talked to him lately, he was happier than when he was a little boy.”
She said he had always wanted to be a commercial fisherman and worked his way up until “Greg gave him a chance” for a full crew share.
“We tried to get him to be a longshoreman, but he wanted to fish. We just wanted him to be safe on a boat and he was safe with Greg. … If we learn anything from this, it’s to put on your life jacket, everybody, every time.” She said she hopes to spread that message.
The two had survival suits, but weren’t wearing them.
A news account from KMTX radio in Kodiak said the men left the Pacific Dynasty on Thursday to go beach combing.
The boat was anchored a half mile from Tugidak Island, an unpopulated spot 125 miles south of Kodiak. They were in a Zodiac skiff and were supposed to return in time for dinner.
Scott McCann, a spokesman for the Coast Guard, said the men had given a float plan to Greg Rutzer.
“When they didn’t come back in time, he gave them a little bit of extra time,” McCann said. “He knew something was wrong.”
The float plan, he told the radio station, helped narrow the search, which began at first light the next day at about 5:30 a.m. An hour later, searchers found the Zodiac on the beach and Rutzer’s body nearby. McCann said they also found two survival suits in the boat. “It’s hard to find survival suits, because we want people to be wearing them,” McCann said. “Your chances of survival are a lot better.”
McCann says the dog was found running on the beach, but there was no sign of Furford.
The search continued all day Friday with two C-130 aircraft as well as three helicopter and ended about 6 p.m. before it was suspended.
Searchers believe Rutzer and Furford made it to the island safely and may have been caught fighting the surf, as they tried to leave.
Furford sometimes stayed with Teresa Hart and her family in high school. She said Dylan, her son Matthew and Cole Rutzer were all part of group of young men who worked on various boats for friends or family and spent every minute they could in the outdoors. “They were great kids, lots of energy and they loved what they were doing. They were goers and doers and they had fun.
“We’re a small community and this has impacted many, many people,” she said. “They were well-known in the fishing community and had lots of friends.”
The flags at City Hall in Westport and at Ocosta High, where the men had gone to school, are flying at half-staff for the remainder of the month.
Ashby said Greg Rutzer is still in Alaska and she’s only been able to talk to him by phone and sometimes he’s too emotional to talk. “He’s just torn apart,” she said.
Ashby said she’s heard that people have said the men shouldn’t have gone out in the small boat, but she said Cole has been fishing in Kodiak multiple times and was experienced with a skiff.
They had been fishing in the area for about a month, she said.
“Cole has been going to Alaska to fish since he was 14 and was learning how to be the boat’s engineer,” his mother said. “He could fix anything. There was nothing he couldn’t fix. He was just a wonderful son. He didn’t walk out the door or hang up the phone without saying he loved me. … He had a bunch of money saved up and he was starting to house hunt,” she said.
Jodee Orton of Westport said she thought of Cole as family. Cole and her son Kaleb, who is also now fishing in Alaska, were part of a group of inseparable friends that included Dylan and Cole. For her it’s been like losing a son and for her children, like losing a sibling, she said. “He spent a lot of time at my house and he was a very, very, big part of our lives. … Cole had a smile that could light up a room. I called him my sweet boy, he was just so loving and affectionate.”