The charter fishing boat captain whose boat sank while attempting to cross the Umpqua River Bar in Oregon on Sept. 19, 2005, has pleaded guilty to three counts of seaman’s manslaughter.
In return for pleading guilty, the charter boat captain will avoid a jury trial and is likely to receive a reduced sentence, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Dwight Holton.
The captain is scheduled to appear at a sentencing hearing in federal court on April 2. His attorney, Per Ramfjord, is expected to say that his client is guilty only of negligence, did not intend to cross the bar without Coast Guard permission, and was only attempting to inspect the conditions on the bar when his boat was struck by an unusually large wave. Three passengers aboard his boat, Sydney Mae II, died as a result of the accident.
U.S. Attorney Karin Immergut will argue that the captain intended to cross the bar without permission and was therefore guilty of reckless negligence. Under federal sentencing guidelines, the captain faces 12 to 18 months in prison if he was merely negligent and 41 to 51 months if he is judged to have been recklessly negligent.
Had the case gone to trial and the captain been convicted, he could have been sentenced to up to 10 years in prison for each death, for a total of up to 30 years.
In December, the National Transportation Safety Board faulted the captain for using poor judgment in approaching the bar and ignoring multiple warnings not to cross the bar. It said his decision to allow passengers to go without life jackets led to the deaths.
The federal criminal indictment said Coast Guard officials repeatedly broadcast warnings about the hazardous conditions at the crossing and spoke with the captain several times throughout the evening. The indictment also stated that the captain never conducted a safety briefing, never told his passengers where the life jackets were stowed and was the only one wearing a life jacket when the boat was swamped.
The captain, 50, has 30 years of maritime experience. The 38-foot Sydney Mae II was a motor yacht operating under the Coast Guard’s “six-pack” charter regulations.
According to Ramfjord, “He never intended to cross the bar without permission and consistently acted to ensure the safety of all on board. He did provide a safety briefing and didn’t knowingly pilot the Sydney Mae II into waters he knew to be dangerous. The wave that struck the boat was unanticipated and the sinking was purely accidental.”
In a written statement, Immergut said, “The safety of our charter boat fleet depends on captains acting responsibly. When captains operate their boats unsafely and people are killed, they must be held accountable.”
Immergut observed that just two months before the accident, the captain had attended a safety meeting with other charter boat operators at the Umpqua River Coast Guard station where bar restrictions were a primary topic.
A 47-foot Coast Guard boat eventually rescued the captain and one passenger, James Parker, 59, at 2111, after they had been in the water about 40 minutes.
The 160-year-old federal seaman’s manslaughter statute makes it a crime for a captain, engineer, pilot or other person employed on a vessel to cause a death through negligence. It allows for up to 10 years per death, but has been used only a handful of times in the past century. It has been applied more frequently in recent years, including the New York ferry crash that killed 11 passengers in 2003.