An Oregon charter boat captain was sentenced on May 18 to six years imprisonment for causing the deaths of three of his passengers while attempting to cross the Umpqua River Bar after it had been closed by the Coast Guard.
This sentence is the harshest ever imposed under the 170-year-old Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute.
The government argued that the charter boat captain, Richard Oba, disregarded multiple radio warnings from the Coast Guard to stay away from the Umpqua River Bar on Sept. 19, 2005, as he returned from a tuna fishing trip 50 miles offshore. He was told to detour to Coos Bay, the next harbor south, which has a deepwater shipping channel, but he instead continued on course for the Umpqua River.
When he reached the bar at 2030 in darkness, his 38-foot motor yacht, Sydney Mae III, was overwhelmed and sunk by breaking waves. Oba and one passenger were hauled from the water a half hour later by a 47-foot Coast Guard boat. Oba was wearing an inflatable life vest under his coat. None of the passengers were wearing life vests. The surviving passenger, Jim Parker, testified that there had been no safety briefing.
The prosecution pointed out that two months before the accident, Oba had attended a safety meeting with other charter boat operators at the Umpqua River Coast Guard station about bar restrictions and life-vest use during hazardous conditions. (In 2003, 11 people died when an inspected charter boat, Taki-Tooo, capsized while attempting to depart over a rough bar. No life vests had been issued to the passengers.)
Oba, 60, who pleaded guilty in January under a plea agreement, told U.S. District Judge Ancer Haggerty he was carrying the “awful burden” of having caused three deaths. But he continued to insist that he did not intend to cross the bar and was merely inspecting it to see if conditions had improved as a skipper onshore had told him over the radio. Haggerty did not offer comment with his sentence, which went well beyond the guidelines of 3 to 4.5 years for “reckless operation.” (In the 2003 Staten Island Ferry crash that killed 11 passengers, the pilot received 1.5 years.)
Oba’s attorney said that his client would appeal.
Coast Guard Capt. Patrick G. Gerrity, captain of the port in Portland, applauded the sentence. “Although the vast majority of commercial operators in Oregon have excellent records and work closely with the Coast Guard in maintaining the highest level of safety, today’s sentence will demonstrate to those captains who operate their boats in a hazardous or reckless manner that they will be held accountable,” Gerrity said.
The two Coast Guard petty officers on duty at the station, both qualified “surfmen,” testified in the pre-sentencing hearing on April 3 that the sea conditions deteriorated rapidly from a 2- to 4-foot rolling swell at noon to 14- to 16-foot sloughing breakers by 1600. Only one other charter vessel went out that day. It was allowed to return in the afternoon and was “tossed around violently.”
At 1630 the Coast Guard closed the entrance to the river to uninspected vessels. This restriction applied to Oba’s boat, a Bertram 38-foot sportfisher operating under the six-pack charter rules.
A 47-foot Coast Guard boat went out to inspect the bar at 1815 and found “continuous breaking waves” across the bar. At 1945, conditions were checked again from the observation tower.
Parker testified he was sitting on the flying bridge with Oba and heard conversations between him and the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard radio operator logged five calls with Oba between 1630 and 2021.
Oba had been operating his charter boat on the Umpqua for four years. His prior experience was mainly on private motor yachts in the San Francisco area.