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Report blames excessive load for vessel's sinking in 2008

Hal Bernton | The Seattle Times

SEATTLE -- A Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation concluded that an "excessively loaded" hold, an unsecured door, and an "imprudent decision" to push into a huge storm contributed to the Oct. 22, 2008, sinking of the Seattle-based Katmai that killed seven crew members.

The report's recommendations include calls for mandatory training of fishing-boat captains, mandatory inspections of all fishing vessels, and improvements in crew training.

Some of these recommendations were also suggested after the 2001 sinking of the Seattle-based Arctic Rose that killed 15 crew. But the Katmai report notes that those proposals have yet to be acted upon.

The Katmai had a crew of 11 people. The four survivors underwent a nightmarish nearly 16-hour ordeal in a life raft that repeatedly flipped over, dumping them into the huge seas.

The investigation was conducted by a three-man panel led by Cmdr. Malcolm Rob McLellan. He could not be reached Friday for comment.

Investigators took testimony from survivors, reviewed stability reports and also commissioned a detailed stability analysis. The report has been sent to survivors and family members of the deceased and was obtained by The Seattle Times.

It is scheduled for public release later this month.

The Seattle-based Katmai was built in Florida in 1978 and initially outfitted as a trawler to pursue shrimp. Like many vessels, it was modified for other fisheries, eventually being used to fish with baited traps for cod in a remote fishing ground off the Aleutian Islands.

In most major maritime disasters, lots of things go wrong. The sinking of the Katmai was no exception.

A key decision came when the skipper, Henry Blake, opted to push across Amchitka Pass to try to unload his catch of cod at Dutch Harbor, despite a major storm forecast to produce hurricane-speed winds and huge seas.

Blake reviewed an e-mailed weather report. But he may not have grasped the full strength of the storm that produced 100-mph winds because the Katmai's weather fax, which produced graphic images, was not operating, the report stated.

Two other, larger vessels in the area opted to wait out the storm in the lee of islands.

The Coast Guard investigation concluded Blake "unnecessarily exposed" the crew to the storm.

Investigators also concluded that cargo weight was a factor in the disaster. The Katmai had an out-of-date 1996 stability report that made no specific reference to the maximum amount of cargo that could be put in the hold. But the calculations in that report were done with a cargo load of about half the weight of fish that had been piled into the hold.

The big load made the Katmai sit lower in the water, and thus more vulnerable to flooding in rough waters.

Testimony by survivors indicated a watertight door to a stern compartment was not securely fastened, allowing water to flood into a sensitive area and shut down steering controls.

There was also major flooding in the engine room, the cause of which could not be determined. The below-deck area where fish were processed also may have flooded, and Coast Guard models indicated that would have caused the vessel to capsize.

Investigators also examined a 1994 life raft the survivors, as well as three who later died, climbed into after evacuating the flooded Katmai. That life raft had less ballast then newer models and it repeatedly flipped over.

Investigators recommended the Coast Guard should decide whether an age limit "should be imposed on existing life rafts to ensure proper operation in all marine environments and to ensure that all life rafts are compliant with the most current safety requirements."

But that recommendation was rejected by the office of Coast Guard commandant, Adm. Thad Allen. "Such a limit could result in many perfectly good, serviceable (and expensive) life rafts being discarded simply because they had reached the arbitrarily established date," the Coast Guard said.

Instead, it will consider publishing a "lessons learned document," and encourage vessel owners to purchase lifesaving equipment that provides more protection in harsh and cold conditions.

The Seattle Times