Katmai survivors recall desperate struggle

SINKING: Life raft kept capsizing, they tell federal investigators.

October 27, 2008 

The captain of a commercial fishing boat that sank last week in remote Aleutian waters said Monday he and other crewmen spent a terrifying night trying to cling to a wave-pummeled life raft.

The 11-man crew was forced to abandon the 93-foot vessel Katmai after it lost steering, flooded and rolled over in rough seas west of Adak early last Wednesday, said Henry Blake, who lives in Massachusetts.

That began a desperate fight for survival, Blake told a panel of federal investigators during a hearing at the Hilton hotel in downtown Anchorage.

Blake said he and six others made it into a life raft, which itself was filled with water as waves pounded against it and the men tried to secure a sheltering canopy in the wind gusts.

"And then a big one came," he said, a monster wave that overturned the raft and dumped the men -- all wearing survival suits -- into the frigid water.

When they regrouped, three of the men had disappeared. "Josh was gone, Cedric was gone," said Blake, pausing at that point as emotion gripped his throat.

In the ensuing hours, before a U.S. Coast Guard rescue helicopter found them the next day and hoisted them to safety, waves flipped the raft over and over again -- 20, 30, maybe even 50 times, Blake said.

A rookie crewman, 23-year-old Adam Foster of Shoreline, Wash., testified Monday that after one wipeout he found himself about 40 yards away from the raft. "Countless times," he said, waves flipped the raft and he had to swim hard to get back to it.

"When we saw that helicopter just come out of the sky out of nowhere, that was the best feeling I've ever felt in my life," he said.


Only Blake, Foster and two others survived the sinking.

The rescue came more than 15 hours after serious trouble developed on the fishing boat, which was running east through heavy weather to Dutch Harbor to deliver its catch of Pacific cod.

The crewmen as well as an owner of the boat testified Monday that the boat was fully loaded with some 120,000 pounds of cod worth about $200,000.

Three Coast Guard officers, along with two investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board, are expected to take more testimony today. Their goal is to find out what went wrong on the Katmai, whether any laws were broken, and how to prevent future tragedies.

But already the Alaska fishing industry has seen a string of tragedies within a specialized fleet that operates in the style of the Katmai. These boats use nets, hooks or traps to catch fish such as cod or sole. Crews then behead and gut the fish, freeze them onboard, and package them for wholesale.

The Katmai is the fourth head-and-gut vessel to suffer catastrophe this decade, beginning with the 2001 sinking of the Arctic Rose in the Bering Sea, killing all 15 crewmen.

Even before the Katmai sinking, this fleet had drawn increasing scrutiny from industry regulators as well as Congress.

A Seattle-based company called Katmai Fisheries Inc. operated the boat. The vessel's owners include Lloyd Cannon, a longtime Alaska fishing industry player who lives in the Seattle area, and minority owner Marty Morin.

Morin said in an interview Monday that Cannon has health problems and won't be in Anchorage to testify.

Morin himself told the investigators that the boat previously fished for shrimp in Alaska and also in Hawaii. Last fall, he said, it was modified to start fishing along the far-flung Aleutian chain for cod. The boat used traps, also known as pots, to capture the cod.


The boat was finishing up its fifth cod trip this year when it sank, Morin said.

Coast Guard Cmdr. Malcolm McLellan, chairman of the investigative panel, questioned Morin about whether the Katmai's "stability book," written when it was built in a Florida shipyard in 1987, was out of date. The stability book guides the captain on how to safely load and run the boat in given sea conditions.

McLellan asked Morin if he was aware the book said the stability guidelines needed to be updated if the boat switched to a different fishery. Morin said he wasn't.

But a lawyer for the owners, Michael Williamson, said stability wasn't the problem for the Katmai.

Blake, the captain, said the boat -- loaded not only with the full catch but with 425 pots, each weighing 45 pounds -- was traveling just fine through heavy seas toward Dutch Harbor.

The first sign of trouble, he said, was when the vessel lost steering. The chief engineer, Robert Davis, who didn't survive, went down below and found flooding in a stern compartment called the lazaret. This compartment houses some of the rudder works.

The flooding evidently came through an open watertight door to the compartment, Blake said.


Davis tried valiantly to pump out the water and believed to the end that he could save the boat, Blake said.

But without steering, the boat went broadside to oncoming swells, flooding spread to the engine room and elsewhere, and water began to wash over the stern, he said.

The boat's doom was hastened when, for some reason, the engines slipped out of neutral and started forward, rolling the boat to starboard, Blake said.

"At that point, I knew we were going down," he said.

Foster, the crewman, said he'd worked on the boat only two months, but said it seemed in good shape and the boat's officers put the crew through frequent safety drills at sea.

Find Wesley Loy's commercial fishing blog online at adn.com/highliner or call 257-4590.

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