Eleven killed when charter boat capsizes on Oregon coast

Taki-Tooo, a 35-foot charter fishing boat, was struck by a wave and rolled over on the Tillamook Bar on the north Oregon coast in mid June, drowning 11 of the 19 people onboard. A Coast Guard 47-foot lifeboat was on the scene within minutes, but the charter boat, passengers and crew were quickly swept around the north jetty into the surf.

Taki-Tooo, is buffeted by heavy surf as rescuers make their way toward the boat after the waves drove it onto the beach.
   Image Credit: Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard Office of Investigations & Analysis

This accident dramatically illustrated the crucial role life jackets play in survival rates. None of the 11 dead was wearing a life jacket, while five of the eight survivors were. The five had been trapped in the upturned cabin, where all the life jackets had spilled from their storage locker.

The capsize occurred in view of people strolling on Barview Beach, and many waded out to drag the exhausted survivors clear of the breakers. The Coast Guard helicopter that arrived from the Astoria airbase about 30 minutes after the accident was only able to locate and hoist two bodies from the water. The accident is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Taki-Tooo was one of four charter boats that ventured out that morning, despite a series of warnings about the sea conditions. Big swells had been hitting the coast for the previous 24 hours, causing the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration to broadcast a small-craft advisory on the evening of June 13. That alert was increased to a storm-swell warning at 0330 on June 14. In addition, an extremely low tide was predicted for 0744.

The conditions led the Garibaldi Coast Guard station to post rough-bar warnings, prohibiting recreational craft and uninspected commercial fishing vessels from transiting the bar. (The Coast Guard 47-footer was actually patrolling inside the harbor to enforce this closure.) The majority of the local charter fleet also remained at the dock, despite it being Father’s Day weekend, the traditional start of the summer season. Nonetheless, four charter operators cast off around 0600.

Their plan was to wait midway down the channel between the mile-long jetties until the tide stopped ebbing. The skippers were assuming that the 12- to 15-foot breaking waves visible on the bar would then subside. After a 45-minute wait, the two biggest boats, the 42-foot Norwester and the 44-foot Oakland Pilot, decided it was time to go. They reached the ocean safely but radioed back that it had been a rough ride. The 32-foot D&D went next.

There were numerous witnesses to the capsize. The eight survivors of Taki-Tooo all stated that the boat was parallel to the wave that struck it. Crew on the other boats reported that the boat had turned north out of the channel and closer to the end of the north jetty, where the disintegrating structure has deposited boulders on the bottom. They suggested Taki-Tooo might have been trying to avoid a drifting log, or even attempting to break out of the entrance by running the trough. Taki-Tooo’s skipper had 17 years of experience on the boat and had crossed the bar hundreds of times.

He did not survive in the 50° water. His deck hand was the 22-year-old daughter of the boat’s owner. She survived without a life jacket by removing her boots and outer clothing and swimming ashore; she was treated for hypothermia at the local hospital.

All the boat’s mechanical systems checked out after it was recovered from the surf. Local fishermen pointed to shoaling of the entrance channel as a possible cause of the disaster. Tillamook is one of several small harbors on the Oregon coast that have lost federal funding for regular dredging, and no dredging has taken place since 1976. However, the Corps of Engineers conducted its annual survey two weeks later and found the minimum depth to be 24 feet, 6 feet over the minimum required depth of 18 feet.

Image Credit: Peter Marsh

The charter boat sits on a flatbed trailer after it was recovered. Examination of the boat indicated its gear was in good working order.

A federal law passed in 1996 was supposed to ensure that all charter-boat passengers would be wearing life jackets in hazardous conditions like those often encountered on the Tillamook Bar. It was inspired by the 1986 capsize of the charter boat Merry Jane in the entrance to Bodega Bay, Calif. That accident cost the lives of nine of the 51 people onboard, none of whom was wearing a life jacket.

This amendment to the federal regulations governing small passenger vessels compels masters to require passengers to don life jackets when possibly hazardous conditions exist. The list of potentially dangerous conditions specified by the regulations includes transiting hazardous bars or inlets and severe weather.

Following the accident the Coast Guard issued a safety alert concerning life jackets.

“The Coast Guard has entrusted small-passenger-vessel masters to use their judgment to determine when to require the passengers to wear life jackets,” the alert said. “Donning life jackets when possibly hazardous conditions exist may make passengers apprehensive, but this precaution can easily be explained as similar to wearing seat belts during aircraft take-offs and landings and periods of turbulence. The wearing of life jackets is a safety measure required for passenger protection. The best time to don a life jacket is before it is needed — before people are in the water.”

Some charter skippers say that since they would never go out in hazardous conditions, their passengers don’t need to wear life jackets. But that viewpoint is not one the Coast Guard shares.

Two weeks before Taki-Tooo capsized, there was a hearing on a similar incident on the Tillamook Bar in May 2002, when the 25-foot charter boat Ted’s was struck by a wave and capsized. The two passengers onboard were not wearing life jackets and drowned. The Coast Guard held the skipper responsible, and in July 2003, Coast Guard Administrative Law Judge Edwin M. Bladen revoked the skipper’s license to operate uninspected passenger vessels.

Judge Bladen found that the skipper failed to routinely conduct a safety briefing before getting underway and failed to post emergency instruction signs required by federal regulations.

Bladen made repeated references to the skipper’s “cavalier attitude” toward life jackets.

In his verdict, he wrote, “Respondent’s view of the utility of life jackets suggests to me that he has life jackets onboard his charter fishing vessel as a tolerated nuisance. I also see his idiosyncratic view contributing to his historical avoidance of the safety orientation requirements.”

The judge found it ironic that the skipper was clutching a life preserver when a Coast Guard motor lifeboat crew plucked him from the surf.

Among the exhibits considered by the judge was a Feb. 25, 2003, article in the Longview, Wash., Daily News, in which the skipper downplayed the importance of life jackets. “I’ve fished for 60 years on the high seas, and I’ve never worn one,” he was quoted as saying. “They’re uncomfortable. They’re big and cumbersome.”

The skipper has stated his intention to appeal the judge’s decision, saying that he had a good safety record and a modern, well-equipped boat.

By Professional Mariner Staff