Alaska News

Icy spray, heavy crab pots may have doomed Seattle fishing boat, Coast Guard learns

SEATTLE — On the morning of Feb. 11, crab-boat skipper Daher Jorge received a Coast Guard radio request to assist a Bering Sea search for a missing vessel — the Seattle-based Destination.

But Jorge's own boat, the Polar Sea, was burdened by a thickening mantle of ice that made it more vulnerable to sinking. His crew had been unable to break off all that ice while at sea, so Jorge felt compelled to reject the call for help and headed to port in Alaska's Pribilof Islands.

"That was the only reason we did not go. For our own safety," Jorge testified during two weeks of hearings this month in Seattle by a U.S. Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation into the sinking of the Destination and loss of all six of its crew.

The ice that caked the Polar Sea came from heavy freezing spray kicked up from turbulent water on a chilly day.

Photographs taken by Jorge show the bow of his boat resembled the inside of a blast freezer.

Those images, now Coast Guard exhibits, also offer a glimpse of the conditions the Destination crew may have faced as they tried to make headway while carrying a big load of steel crab pots, which may have reduced the boat's stability.

Again and again, through the course of the Coast Guard hearings, investigators examined this treacherous scenario as they took testimony from more than 30 people, including former members of the Destination's crew, skippers of other crab boats and a naval architect who developed a stability booklet for the Destination.

The board is also considering whether the Destination carried crab pots that exceeded the weights used in stability and loading calculations.

It also heard evidence of a past steering problem on the boat that prompted a major repair in 2016.

Testimony showed that even when a boat has a clear deck, a big ice buildup can pose risks. Those risks increase when dozens of crab pots — large rectangular cages that weigh hundreds of pounds — are stacked high on the deck and become coated in freezing spray.

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Skippers testified they combat icing by slowing down or seeking the shelter of an island when possible. If ice accumulations become too great, the crew may be sent on deck with baseball bats, sledgehammers and other tools to break it off.

The Coast Guard board — led by Cmdr. Scott Muller — is charged with determining a probable cause of the sinking and will eventually prepare a report that will include recommendations on how to reduce the risks of such accidents.
No distress calls were picked up from the Destination, so the disaster likely happened quickly.

The sinking was discovered only after the Destination's automatic emergency-locator beacon was activated.

The night before it sank, the Destination transited the west side of St. George Island about a mile offshore, according to Don Cornett, another skipper whose vessel was in the area, who watched the Destination's course on a satellite tracking system called AIS.

"We figured they were trying to stay out of the weather and prevent any further ice buildup," Cornett testified during the hearing.

A debris field was found during a search of the area where the vessel's emergency position-indicating radio beacon went off. The boat eventually was located this summer resting on the bottom in some 250 feet of water. The bodies of the crew — Jeff Hathaway, Larry O'Grady, Raymond Vincler, Darrik Seibold, Charles G. Jones and Kai Hamik — were not found.

It was the first loss of life in the Bering Sea crab fleet in a dozen years. The sinking of the Destination was a source of shock and sorrow.

The Discovery Channel's Aug. 22 episode of "The Deadliest Catch" captured the grief of skipper Sig Hansen in February when he first got the news — in the wheelhouse of the Northwestern, his ship. Hansen was so upset he opted to go home early.

"Right now I need to get off the boat. I'm spooked. I'm heartbroken," Hansen said.

During the Coast Guard hearings, the Destination crew was described as seasoned — and savvy — veterans who took good care of their gear.

"It was an outstanding boat," testified Willam Prout, skipper of the Silver Spray, who had seen the Destination at docks in the years past. "Everything was all orderly and meticulous. It was a well-maintained vessel."

But one skipper questioned how the Destination was loaded on its final voyage from Dutch Harbor to the Pribilofs to begin a winter snow-crab harvest. Facing a weather forecast of heavy freezing spray, the Destination had about 200 crab pots stacked five tiers high on deck.

"I called my crew up on deck just to witness this," testified Ricky Fehst, a former crabber who now skippers a boat that fishes for cod. "It alarmed me. If it was me with that forecast, I would have peeled off probably the top two tiers of the load, at least, or waited it (the weather) out.

Fehst said he did not try to contact Hathaway via radio to convey his concerns. "It's really not in our culture … It's not my business to do something like that … to call a captain out."

Mike Barcott, an attorney representing the Destination's owner, said the vessel was not overloaded as it took off from Dutch Harbor, and was in compliance with a stability booklet developed by a naval architect to guide the loading of the vessel under winter conditions.

But Coast Guard officials also are investigating whether assumptions made in the booklet in 1993 reflected the current weight of gear. They have focused on the weight of the pots stacked on the deck of the vessel.

The architect who developed that booklet, Richard Etsell, testified he had based his stability calculations on crab pots that, fully equipped, weighed about 700 pounds each.

Heavier pots, Etsell testified, would require a new analysis of vessel stability and updated guidance on loading.

During the summer exploration of the sunken vessel, a Coast Guard team retrieved a crab pot from the seafloor near the sunken vessel. It weighed between 840 and 880 pounds, according to the Coast Guard and Barcott, attorney for the Destination's owners.

Both weights exceeded the numbers used in the stability book calculations. If all pots loaded onto the Destination were of similar size, then their total weight could have exceeded the stability recommendations by thousands of pounds.

"We just don't know," said Barcott. "Jeff (Hathaway) was the one who selected the pots."

During the hearing, Coast Guard officials also heard testimony about past problems with the Destination's steering that, on occasion, got stuck in one position and caused the vessel to lean over.

The problem prompted extensive repairs in 2016. If it had somehow recurred, that would have added to the problems of the final voyages.

Even without any steering problems, the extensive icing documented in the photos taken aboard the Polar Sea shows the challenges the crew faced on their final voyage.

Jorge, the captain, says he takes such photos to remind him how fast the freezing spray can coat a vessel.

"It is good information. You keep looking at it and see how fast it can happen," Jorge told Coast Guard investigators.