It’s an accident that killed six fishermen, most from Western Washington, in the first accident of its scale since the rules of the Alaskan crabbing season were changed in 2005. Before that, crabbing was called the “wild west” by the people who worked it, especially in the 1990s, which saw a steady stream of maritime disasters.
Whatever caused the fishing vessel Destination to go down with all hands three miles north of St. George Island on February 11 happened quickly. There was no distress call. The U.S. Coast Guard scrambled rescue crews based on a signal from the boat’s electronic distress beacon, triggered by the sinking.
In Seattle on Monday, the Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board began two weeks of testimony into the sinking.
Monday was spent questioning the ship's owner, 68-year-old David Wilson. The experienced fisherman, who hired Captain Jeff Hathaway back in 1993, recounted documents recapping the safety drills and briefings given to all crew before the season began.
Larry O’Grady, Raymond Vincler, Darrik Seibold, Charles Jones and Kai Hamik were all on board with Hathaway. All presumed lost.
Earlier this summer, the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy spent days over the wreck and found the vessel sitting upright in 240 feet of water listing to the port.
On Monday morning, Wilson was asked about maintenance issues -- including a discussion, he had with the ship’s captain by phone while in Alaska.
Some of the investigator questions focused on a leak in the boat's stuffing box, where the propeller shaft goes through the hull of the boat. Wilson said the leak was slow after the packing was tightened down and within safety parameters, meaning bilge pumps could easily put any water overboard.
Two days before the sinking, the Captain planned to have a new gasket installed next to a flexible coupling on the engine’s exhaust system.
Wilson was asked about the vessel’s stability. The panel asked about how the boat was lengthened by some 20 feet in the early 1990s. They also inquired about the size and weight of crab pots on board.
Weather was explored as a factor, as temperatures were well below freezing and windy. The forecast called for freezing spray, potentially making the 200 crab pots on deck vulnerable to accumulating thick ice.
“He was very capable and knowledgeable about that boat, had a great crew,” Wilson said of his skipper. “I had high confidence in his ability.”
The captain had dealt with icy conditions before and knew they could be managed through reductions in speed and change in course. He also knew how to use tools to knock the ice off.
The investigation is still in its fact finding stage the Board of Investigation Chairman Cmdr. Scott Mullen said.
The panel is expected to review underwater video of the wreck on the last day of testimony.
Mullen said it may be February before a final report and cause is issued, but recommendations based on the analysis of testimony could be issued even sooner in an effort to prevent any further accidents before the next crabbing season begins in October.