Man with Kalispell ties endures hurricane aboard ship

October 13, 2018

James Barker experienced Hurricane Michael’s fury aboard the FSF-1 Sea Fighter.

“We went out to the middle of St. Andrews Bay and rode out the entirety of the storm,” said Barker, 47, a 1989 graduate of Flathead High School.

“I tell you what, I’ll never do that again,” he said. “It was exhilarating, to say the least.”

The Sea Fighter, a high-speed ship with a catamaran design, was first launched by the U.S. Navy but now serves as a Panama City-based platform for researchers as a vessel of the Office of Naval Research.

The waves weren’t as bad as the winds, Barker said.

Before being torn away by the gale, the ship’s wind gauge recorded wind speeds of 140 mph, he said.

The good news, he added, was that the ship didn’t sink and it didn’t run aground.

The powerful hurricane came ashore Wednesday at Mexico Beach, east of Panama City, as a Category 4 storm with winds of 155 mph and a storm surge of nine feet.

Barker, who served 22 years in the U.S. Navy before retiring in 2011, his wife, Jacqui, and their teenaged daughter, Jenna, live in Panama City Beach, Florida. Jacqui and Jenna fled the storm and evacuated to Pensacola.

Barker retired as a chief petty officer and was once an instructor at the Navy dive school in Panama City. He works now for a contractor that supplies a navigation department and an engineering department for the ship.

He said the initial plan was to get the Sea Fighter underway well in advance of the hurricane roaring ashore. But he said maintenance issues delayed leaving port and by the time crews had cobbled together the necessary fixes “the hurricane was too close for us to run away from it.”

Gary Barker, James’ father, watched and waited in Kalispell as Hurricane Michael approached the home of his son and family.

“I was quite concerned, looking at the news at the path of the hurricane,” he said. “I thought, ‘It’s going to go right over the top of them.’”

The Barker family’s home sustained some damage from the storm but it wasn’t severe. On Friday, the family had no power or water. But Barker said many residents of the area suffered devastating losses.

“There are people within just a few blocks of us who don’t have homes,” he said. “It’s pretty surreal. There are people just wandering around in a daze where their house once stood.”

Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at dadams@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4407.

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