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Survivors recall sinking of the Northern Belle

  • Author: James Halpin
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published April 21, 2010

One moment the Northern Belle was cutting through the Gulf of Alaska on the way to Dillingham, and then suddenly the 75-foot fishing vessel was listing severely to starboard, its deck turning almost vertical. The four crew members, scrambling into survival suits and making decisions about how they might survive, had nowhere to go but the churning water.

Seattle resident Robert Jack, 52, who had been at the helm, plunged 10 feet into the sea, tearing his survival suit in the process on a piece of metal. He was also briefly pinned underwater by a crane.

"I immediately was sucked under from the wash and everything else dragging down," Jack said Wednesday in an interview at Providence hospital in Anchorage. "But I was lucky and fortunate to be able to kick myself away from the boat."

The captain of the Northern Belle, Robert Royer, wasn't able to get clear of the tangle of gear, Jack said. He tried to jump overboard but hit his head on a large metal pump, Jack said. Royer went in the water but didn't immediately resurface.

Some time later, Jack saw Royer's body floating face-up a distance away, he said.

In all, three of the four crew members of the Seattle-based vessel -- Jack, Nicole Esau, 36, of Anacortes, Wash., and Todd Knivila, 48, of Seattle -- survived the dangers of abandoning the vessel. They were picked up by a Coast Guard helicopter 50 miles south of Montague Island after spending about three hours in the water.

An 8-year-old cocker spaniel named Baxter, a beloved pet that went everywhere with Royer, went down with the vessel.

"He was very close to his dogs," Jack said. "I know he was really upset because he tried to get Baxter and Baxter ran when the boat started to tip."

The vessel had been hauling a load of lumber, pilings and other construction materials to Dillingham in Bristol Bay. The crew planned to unload the goods and then head for herring fishing grounds in the Togiak area.

Jack said the Northern Belle left Seattle April 10 and hugged the shore up the Inside Passage before starting across the Gulf of Alaska. Jack said the crew had suspicions that their vessel may not have been properly loaded. The skipper, he said, had expressed reservations that there was too much weight in the stern.

"We didn't have much freeboard due to the weight and the fuel that we took on," Jack said. "So I was constantly pumping the engine room to make sure that we had the freeboard so we weren't taking water over the deck."

The crew worked the helm in shifts, four on and eight off. They had just eaten dinner Tuesday evening when he started his shift about 4 p.m. The seas were rolling about 4 to 6 feet, pretty calm for the Gulf, when disaster struck.

"I looked over out through the front and I saw that we were bow-up, stern-down and we were listing drastically to the starboard side," Jack said.

He called for the captain and offered to check the engine room. But the captain went down and Jack continued to steer as the vessel tilted 20 degrees to the right. "It was a lot of confusion for a while," he said.

The three crew members went out back to put on their survival suits while Royer tried to right the ship and called in a mayday to the Coast Guard, giving rescuers the exact coordinates.

"Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! This is the Northern Belle," a frantic Royer is heard saying in a recording released by the Coast Guard. "We have four persons on board. We are getting in a life raft here. We are going down."

The Coast Guard received the call about 5:30 p.m. and launched a C-130 and MH-60 Jayhawk from Kodiak about 10 minutes later.

The rescue team had conditions in its favor. Winds were at 35 mph and skies were overcast, but it was daytime, visibility was excellent and there was no rain, said Petty Officer Sara Francis. There was a gale warning, but the storm hadn't moved in yet.

"It was a beautiful day," Francis said.

After calling in the mayday, Royer came out of the wheelhouse in a panic, told the crew to abandon ship and to deploy the life raft, Jack said.

"By that time the ship was almost at a vertical starboard list with the mains running," he said. "We were cutting through the water in a circle with the stern down."

They tossed a life raft overboard but it didn't deploy, he said. Royer and Jack went to the starboard side, planning to slide down into the water, while the other two stayed on the other side, intending to wait until the ship was down so they wouldn't get caught in gear and pulled under, Jack said.

Once in the water, Jack was tossed in the waves for about an hour, sucking in water as the numbness of hypothermia began to set in.

Then, miraculously, a lashed bundle of floating lumber appeared. Jack swam for what seemed to him most of an hour before he reached it and pulled himself onto the platform.

"It was like an island," he said.

He activated his strobe on the survival suit and began blowing his whistle, he said. That's when he saw Royer's body and Esau and Knivila together about 500 feet away. The lumber was too heavy and Jack couldn't navigate with it, he said. Esau swam to him but Knivila couldn't make it, he said.

Jack and Esau clung to the planks, getting tossed off by wind and waves now and again. He thought about his 11-year-old daughter, Danielle, to stay motivated, he said.

Esau, who would later relate her story to her mother from the clinic in Cordova, told her mother she took heart when a beam of light shone down from above.

"The sun came through the clouds and she said, 'See, it isn't over,' " her mother, Audrey Castile, said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

Capt. Bill Deal, commander of Air Station Kodiak and a copilot in the C-130, said the mayday with precise coordinates was key to finding the crew. There was no emergency locator beacon to guide searchers -- it wasn't known whether the vessel didn't have one or if it malfunctioned -- but the coordinates put searchers in the right spot about 195 miles east of Kodiak, Deal said.

"We were really relying on visually spotting them so the good conditions really were important there. Had it been very low visibility like it often is around here, it might have been a little different," Deal said. "People in the water are really hard to see."

The C-130 swept the area at about 500 feet and spotted lumber, fishing buoys and other objects. The crew soon came across the survivors clinging to debris and the other man out on his own, he said. The crew dropped smoke to mark the locations and a raft for Knivila.

When a Coast Guard Jayhawk helicopter reached the scene some minutes later, it pulled Royer first, then Jack, Esau and Knivila.

All were flown to Cordova, and Jack was later transported to Anchorage. Royer, whose corporation, Triton Inc., owned four vessels, was also picked up and later pronounced dead in Cordova.

Royer's sister, Melanie Grange, told KING5 TV in Seattle that Royer left California for Washington to become a fisherman when he was 16. He was a self-made man who had just bought the fourth boat, the Eastern Hunter, she told the station.

"I never thought I'd lose him this way, I never thought the water would take him," Grange said. "We always knew that was a possibility but we thought that he was going to be OK."

Knivila, who was banged up in the ordeal, was released from the hospital Tuesday night, Jack said.

Jack suffered a sprained ankle and was being treated in Anchorage for saltwater aspiration and potential kidney damage from being in the cold water, he said. He hoped to be out in a few days.

Esau was being treated for saltwater aspiration and was expected to be released Thursday, said her mother.

It was Nicole Esau's first trip out on a commercial fishing boat. And it will likely be her last, Castile said.

Esau, who had recently been living in Anacortes, has always been adventurous and decided to go on a fishing adventure after five years of doing social work in Ketchikan, Castile said. But Esau told her mother this morning that the fishing was likely over.

"I asked her, 'What's your next adventure?" Castile said. "She said, 'I think it'll be gardening.' "

Find James Halpin online at or call him at 257-4589.