NTSB: Ice accumulation likely led to fatal sinking of fishing boat in Bering Sea

SEATTLE — Ice accumulating on the Seattle-based crab boat the Destination undermined the vessel's stability and probably led to its sinking this past year and the loss of its six crew members, a National Transportation Safety Board report found.

The Feb. 11, 2017, sinking, the worst Bering Sea crab boat disaster in more than a decade, likely happened quickly. There was no Mayday distress call that might have given a clue as to what was going wrong just off the Pribilof island of St. George as the Destination crew carried a load of steel-framed pots for the start of the snow-crab season.

The NTSB, in the 24-page report, noted that the island would have initially provided some protection from "the onslaught of freezing spray" by blocking winds and reducing sea heights. But once the Destination left the island's lee, the crew would have faced 10-foot seas, and the ice accumulation "reached heavy to moderate proportions for nearly a half an hour before the vessel capsized and sank."

The loss of the Destination generated shock and grief in a Bering Sea crab fleet that in the past 15 years has significantly improved its safety record.

The Destination was operated by Jeff Hathaway, a veteran skipper respected by his peers. Former crew members noted that he had many years of experience dealing with ice buildup that, as sea spray, freezes on decks, gear and hulls, adding a lot of weight that can put a vessel in peril. Tactics to combat freezing spray include using sledgehammers and other tools to knock off ice, moving to the lee of an island or delaying the start of a voyage when weather conditions look bad.

The NTSB report noted that the National Weather Service had a heavy freezing-spray warning for Feb. 11 in the area the Destination sank as it carried some 200 pots. The report also called into question Hathaway's decision to "proceed during heavy freezing spray conditions without ensuring the vessel had a margin of stability to withstand an accumulation of ice or without taking mitigating action to avoid or limit the effects of icing."

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In addition to Hathaway, the other five crew members were Larry O'Grady, Raymond Vincler, Darrik Seibold, Charles G. Jones and Kai Hamik.

The NTSB report results from a joint investigation with the Coast Guard, which is expected to release its own report within the next several months.

In some past investigations, the NTSB, such as in the 2008 sinking of the Alaska Ranger factory ship, has reached a different probable cause of the sinking of a vessel.

The Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation has not commented on what its own report might say.

The NTSB, in its report, notes the results of a Coast Guard Marine Safety Center stability analysis of the Destination, which used a computer-generated hull model. That Coast Guard analysis concluded the vessel likely capsized in large seas and winds because of prolonged icing conditions that added weight high on the vessel.

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The Destination had experienced steering problems in years past. Two former crew members, in interviews earlier this year with The Seattle Times, questioned whether the problem, which caused the steering to stick in one direction, could have reoccurred and contributed to the disaster.

The NTSB noted that the steering system had undergone repairs. It stated "the investigation considered steering gear failure as a cause of the capsize, but there was no indication that the recently overhauled steering system contributed to the cause of the accident."

The bodies of the crew have not been found.

The sunken vessel was was eventually found through underwater sonar surveys northwest of St. George, resting on its port side in some 250 feet of water.

A Coast Guard icebreaker went to the site this past summer, and a remote-operated vehicle was used to investigate the sea-bottom vessel.