Watch: Last Hope: Coast Guard Alaska Search and Rescue
KODIAK, Alaska - Every year boats from Washington state head to Alaska for one of the most dangerous jobs known to man: commercial fishing.
Those crews often face hurricane-force winds and giant waves.
So, there is a dedicated group of people ready to jump at a moment's notice to keep them safe.
It's 5:00 a.m. in Kodiak, Alaska - where only a few fishing vessels still sit idle.
Most are on the open sea for salmon season, but on this morning, the crew of the Laguna Star prepares to head out for weeks in search of a big catch.
Sitting in a salvage yard a mile away is another vessel - the Miss Destinee, just seven days after a wave capsized the boat. Two deckhands drowned inside.
Every Alaska fisherman knows the risk - some better than others.
Three years ago, Mike Farnsworth was on a different boat in the Bering Sea when the vessel caught fire in the dead of night.
"I just remember hell seen in my face," said Farnsworth. "It scared the (expletive) out of me because I had to make the decision of do I jump off the boat or not."
Farnsworth did jump with his crew as the boat sank.
"The whole time I'm like, 'we're not gonna survive, we're gonna die. We're gonna die,' " he said.
But then something appeared on the horizon.
"This is my savior, all mighty," said Farnsworth.
Their last hope.
"I can't believe they found me. I can't believe they're here," said Farnsworth.
Ten miles outside Kodiak, there's a military base decorated for U.S. Coast Guard Alaska. Their biggest role in this region is a lifeline known as Search and Rescue.
"Every time we get launched on SAR, we are the last line to rescue these people because there's no other game in town," said Captain Mark Morin, who oversees the SAR team.
Coast Guard Search and Rescue is the main medevac in the last frontier, pulling people from remote areas during medical emergencies.
Many of those urgent calls come from Alaska's water, where thousands of fishing crews work in isolation year round.
Captain Morin said his crew covers about 3.5 million square miles. When a call comes in, he expects wheels up in less than 30 minutes.
"It's a well-choreographed operation," he said.
Heavy storms and thick fog make flying Alaska's massive terrain difficult and dangerous.
"You know you only have six hours of daylight, so a lot of search and rescue cases that you're flying up here are under the cover of darkness," said Captain Morin.
Many missions are exhausting. Rescuers can scan the surface of the sea for hours at a time and once they've found what they're looking for, they may drop a rescue swimmer into the frigid water.
Communication is key and it's the flight mechanic's responsibility. They run the hoist and direct the pilot. If all goes right, they pull someone in and fly them out. But, that's not always possible.
On February 11, 2017, an emergency beacon went off near Alaska's St. George Island.
The Destination, a Seattle-based crabbing vessel, had vanished.
Tom and Judy Hamik's son Kai worked on the Destination. The couple waited as the Coast Guard combed thousands of miles of water - finding nothing more than debris.
"I just knew in my heart as a mother it was not going to be found," said Judy Hamik.
After three days, the search was called off. The crew was lost at sea.
Their names now hang on a memorial at the Fisherman's Terminal in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood.
The Hamik's remember their son as a kid who always wanted to be a fisherman like his dad.
"There's a secret that fishermen don't talk about. But each one of us know it," said Tom Hamik. "Anybody that's taken sea spray in the face. You know that secret is, it could be any one of us at any time."
But try telling that to a little boy with a big dream.
Coping with failed missions is part of being a Coast Guard rescuer. But the good days keep them going.
Billie Myers remembers the feeling in 1988 when the Coast Guard pulled him off a boat after five days dead in the water.
"It was like the cavalry coming over the hill. And we were surrouned by the enemy, which was the seas," said Myers.
But, Myers went back to fishing just months later, knowing that enemy always looms.
"It's part of your job. If you can't handle that, you don't belong on the water," he said.
So, these rescuers return to their work, knowing it's impact.
Just read the note hanging on rescue swimmer Jonathan Kreske's wall from a man his crew saved. It says, "I really wish I could find better words to say this, but thank you again for my life and your service."
"It's pretty much undescribable. It's a feeling you get at your core. You know you've done good," said Kreske.
A reminder of why they fly toward danger with courage and optimism - they are the last hope.
There's much more to this story, including incredible takes of survival. Look for this story during a special on the Coast Guard which will air on KOMO News on Christmas Day.