Oregon charter boat captain faces charges of seaman’s manslaughter

The captain of a 38-foot charter fishing boat that sank off the Oregon coast in September 2005 has been charged in federal court with seaman’s manslaughter.

Three people died after the boat swamped and then sank in heavy seas near the mouth of the Umpqua River. The captain is being charged under a 160-year-old statute that makes it a crime for a person employed on a vessel to cause a death through negligence.

The criminal charges were filed on Jan. 12, just three weeks after the National Transportation Safety Board released a report that blamed the captain for the accident. The captain used poor judgment in coming too close to the Umpqua River bar in heavy swells, the NTSB report said. The captain’s decision to approach the bar was the primary cause of the sinking, and his failure to require his passengers to wear life jackets contributed to the loss of life, the NTSB concluded.

Only one passenger and the captain survived. The surviving passenger managed to grab a life jacket as it was floating by. The captain was wearing his own inflatable type V life jacket.

The captain has pleaded not guilty to three counts of seaman’s manslaughter. If convicted, he could face a maximum of 10 years in prison for each count.

Through a statement issued by his lawyer, the boat’s captain has denied criminal responsibility. “The sinking was purely accidental,” said Per A. Ramfjord, a Portland lawyer. The captain, Ramfjord continued, “consistently acted to ensure the safety of all who boarded the Sydney Mae II.”

The captain did provide a safety briefing to his passengers, according to the lawyer. The captain “did not knowingly pilot the Sydney Mae II into waters he knew to be dangerous on the day of the accident. Nor did he improperly attempt to cross the Umpqua River bar,” the lawyer said.

The Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute was passed in 1852 to combat steamboat boiler explosions, but it was rarely applied. However, it has been used seven times since 1992, most recently in the case of the Staten Island Ferry crash in October 2003, which killed 11 people (PM #77).

The NTSB report summarized the circumstances and events that led up to the accident. Sydney Mae II was a Bertram fiberglass sport fishing yacht built in 1980 and powered by twin 420-hp diesel engines. The charter boat left Winchester Bay about 0800 for a day of tuna trolling, arriving at the fishing grounds 50 miles offshore around 1200. The surviving passenger has said that no safety briefing was given.

The weather was clear, but by early afternoon, swells had begun to increase. At 1630, the Coast Guard closed the Umpqua Bar to recreational boats and uninspected (six or fewer passengers) charter vessels. The report stated that the captain told his passengers he was going to Coos Bay because the Coast Guard had closed the bar, and that a car would return them to Winchester Bay; however, at 1830, he told the surviving passenger that by the time they got to the bar, it might be open because the tide would change, and they could go in on the flood.

The captain exchanged numerous calls with the Coast Guard and local vessel operators. He called the Coast Guard for the final time at about 2000 from eight miles out. The Coast Guardsman on duty had just received the final report from the Coast Guard’s 47-foot motor lifeboat on station at the bar, confirming that the restrictions were to remain in place since 14-to-16-foot breakers were forming. He restated that the bar was closed and told the captain to proceed to Coos Bay.

The report said that the boat’s captain had also been warned not to cross the bar by fishing vessel captains observing the situation from the Umpqua River Lighthouse parking lot. They had recognized the boat’s lights nearing the jetty and used their radios to try to warn Sydney Mae II not to cross the bar.

At about 2030, the boat began listing to port after a 10-to-12-foot wave broke over its stern at a point approximately 500 yards west of the end of the jetty. When a second big wave broke over the stern, the vessel slipped lower in the water. The onlookers saw a strobe light and called the Coast Guard. Three of the passengers were thrown into the water and clung to a ring buoy until they were swept away. The captain swam to the life raft on the bow of the vessel, but he could not manually deploy it. The life raft finally floated free of its cradle and inflated, but it was quickly carried away. Only the captain and one passenger remained together in the vicinity of the boat.

They were rescued from the 53° water by the Coast Guard shortly after 2100. A helicopter search was initiated, but there was no sign of survivors. Two bodies were found the next day on the beach several miles south of the sinking. The third body was not recovered.

The captain held a U.S. Coast Guard master’s license for vessels of not more than 50 tons, and he had 30 years of experience operating fishing vessels from Alaska to California.

The NTSB report noted that the Sydney Mae II sinking was of particular interest because of its similarity to the capsizing of Taki-Tooo on the Tillamook Bay Bar in June 2003 (PM #75); 11 people died in that accident. In both cases, the captains did not require their passengers to wear lifejackets in what proved to be hazardous conditions.

By Professional Mariner Staff