Coast Guard cites watertight doors and stability issues in Aleutian sinking

Their fishing boat had lost its steering. Water was flooding the lazarette, while 30-foot waves and 80-knot winds pounded the vessel.

Off Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, Chief Engineer Robert Davis and deck hand Adam Foster had their hands full trying to save the 93-foot Katmai.

In Anchorage, members of the Marine Board of Investigation viewed survival suits of the victims of the sinking. (Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

After the boat’s steering failed, the captain ordered Foster to go below and assist Davis, who was feverishly pumping water out of the lazarette. The emergency quickly became a true life-and-death crisis when the seawater also poured into the adjacent engine room.

While he was below, Foster noticed that a hatch wasn’t shut tightly.

“It wasn’t open all the way, but the knob was twisted a little bit, like it was loose," Foster, 23, told investigators later. “Havoc" followed, he said.

Seven men were killed when Katmai sank in the early morning of Oct. 22, 2008, 100 miles west of Adak. Four others survived.

Davis was among the dead. Foster and three other men, including the captain, endured 15 harrowing hours overboard in survival suits, as waves mercilessly hammered and flipped their life raft. A second raft failed to inflate.

A Coast Guard helicopter eventually located the foursome in their raft and rescued them from the 43° water. Good Samaritan fishing vessels located five bodies. Two others were never found.

During a Marine Board of Inquiry hearing in Anchorage in November, Coast Guard investigators heard testimony that seawater flooded the lazarette and engine room. The surviving crew stated that their vessel was loaded with the largest cargo of Pacific cod they had ever seen. Katmai was headed back to Dutch Harbor via Amchitka Pass when it encountered the storm.

Martin Morin, operations manager with Seattle-based vessel owner Katmai Fishing Inc., said the boat underwent repairs and maintenance in October and November 2007.

The hearing moved to Seattle, where board members toured Katmai‘s sister vessel, Miss Amy, to learn more about the sunken vessel’s design.

Left, in Seattle, Coast Guard Cmdr. Malcolm McLellan and Jon Furukawa, a marine accident inspector with the NTSB, examine the interior of Miss Amy, a boat similar to Katmai. (Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

Chief Petty Officer Dana Warr, a Coast Guard public affairs specialist in Juneau, told Professional Mariner that Katmai passed a Coast Guard fishing vessel safety inspection on Dec. 7, 2007.

Even before the casualty investigation was finished, the Coast Guard issued two safety alerts as a direct result of the Katmai disaster. The alerts warned vessel operators to keep their doors watertight and to review the stability book.

A contributing factor in the Katmai sinking was “the failure to properly maintain and keep closed watertight doors on the vessel’s weather deck," one Coast Guard safety alert said. “In this incident, one watertight door was not properly dogged down, permitting it to open and let water flood a space below the main deck. Another watertight door on the vessel’s main deck was not maintained and as a result, it leaked, permitting water to enter an adjacent room."

Another problem on Katmai was “improper loading of the vessel’s fuel, water, fishing gear and catch," the other safety alert said. “In this instance, the vessel’s crew relied on an outdated stability book to determine the safe loading condition of the vessel.

“The stability book being use failed to account for heavy fishing equipment that had been removed from the vessel as well as new fish processing and equipment additions when it changed fishery operations."

Katmai crew testified that Davis was last seen below deck, still trying to save the boat after the captain had ordered everyone to don survival suits and deploy the life rafts. Katmai rolled to starboard. The crew jumped overboard. At least seven men initially made it onto one raft. Waves slammed the raft and scattered the men at least 20 times.

The survivors said crewman Cedric Smith had helped pull others into the raft. Smith unzipped his survival suit halfway so he could move more freely while trying to tie down the canopy, but a wave washed him away and he was never seen alive again.

Katmai‘s deck boss said he had urged the vessel owners to install backup steering and a gasoline-powered pump that could function if the engines failed, but they never did.

The dead were Jake Gilman of Camas, Wash.; Glen Harper of Portland, Ore.; Fuli Lemusu, of Salem, Ore.; Josh Leonguerrero, of Spanaway, Wash., plus Smith, who was also from Portland.

Searchers never found Davis, of Deming, Wash., or Carlos Martin Zabala, of Helena, Mont.

The Katmai sinking was the second disaster in the Alaska fishery in 2008. In March, the head-and-guts factory ship Alaska Ranger lost its rudder and went down in the Bering Sea, killing five. Survivors also reported problems with watertight doors near the engine room.

The Coast Guard’s post-Katmai safety alerts “strongly" recommend mariners:

• Regularly inspect the condition of watertight doors, including the gasket and the knife-edge. Remove any paint from the gaskets.

• Perform a chalk or light test on all watertight doors to ensure that the knife-edge makes contact with the entire door gasket. Routinely lubricate all fittings.

• Ensure that masters train their crews in watertight door operation and maintenance, emphasizing that the doors should be closed unless someone is transiting from space to space.

• Review their stability book and ensure that it reflects the vessel’s current design, equipment and operations.

• Conduct a new stability review when a vessel changes operations or if significant weight changes are made.

• Be certain that the master and engineers are familiar with the stability book and how to use the loading information.

Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff