Overloading, watertight integrity and failure to wait out storm cited in Alaska sinking

A head-and-guts fishing vessel that sank in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands in 2008, killing seven crewmen, was overloaded and wasn’t kept watertight, and the captain made a poor decision to sail into hurricane-like conditions, U.S. Coast Guard investigators have determined.

The accident involving Katmai has prompted federal authorities to consider requiring operators of such fishing vessels to hold Coast Guard licenses. They may also broaden the definition of what may be considered a “fish processing†vessel for the purposes of safety inspections.

The 93-foot Katmai flooded and sank in stormy seas Oct. 22, 2008, in Amchitka Pass. Four of the crew were rescued, five bodies were recovered and the remains of two were never found. The vessel had lost steering in 55- to 90-knot winds and 25- to 35-foot seas, when the crew discovered that seawater was flooding the lazarette, fish-processing area and engine room.

Based on witness statements and other evidence, the Coast Guard investigators determined that watertight doors had not been closed properly. The load of Pacific cod was twice as heavy as earlier stability tests had considered.

“Primary causal factors that led to this casualty … include imprudent voyage planning, failure to maintain watertight boundaries, excessive loading of cargo in the vessel’s fish hold and exposure to heavy winds and high seas,†the Coast Guard said.

The vessel was owned an operated by Seattle-based Katmai Fisheries Inc., which has financial ties and equity overlap with the ownership of All Alaskan Seafoods. Michael Barcott, a Seattle lawyer representing Katmai Fisheries, said the company had no comment on whether it agrees with the Coast Guard’s findings. The lost ship was the company’s final vessel, and family patriarch Lloyd Cannon died recently, Barcott told Professional Mariner in June 2010.

While being battered by heavy weather, Katmai lost steering at about 0800. A crewman checked the lazarette and found that it was flooded with water and a door leading to it was open. Water was accumulating on the aft deck. Flooding also occurred in the engine room and in the fish-processing area, where a witness reported that the aft door had been left open. The water in the lazarette had caused the steering system’s electric motors to fail, the investigators said.

Katmai listed to starboard, and the crew donned immersion suits and deployed life rafts. Good Samaritan fishing vessels Courageous and Patricia Lee picked up the survivors.

The investigators said Katmai was headed to Dutch Harbor to offload the largest load of frozen cod that the vessel had ever held — twice as much as was assumed in its most recent stability report. The captain was aware of impending bad weather, but the weather fax was out of ink, preventing the captain from receiving the latest National Weather Service surface reports and ascertaining the storm’s true scope.

Before a sleep break on the evening of Oct. 21, the captain instructed the engineer to sail at about 7.5 knots to make enough headway to avoid the teeth of the storm. When the captain awoke and resumed his watch, he discovered that Katmai had been able to make only 3.5 or 4 knots. The Coast Guard investigators said the master should have waited out the storm instead of sailing through it.

“The captain’s decision to proceed to Dutch Harbor instead of seeking shelter and waiting for the storm to pass unnecessarily exposed Katmai to the severe weather conditions,†the report said.

The Coast Guard said no one aboard the 148-gross-ton Katmai had a merchant mariner’s credential, although the captain was in the process of seeking a 200-ton license. He had no formal training in vessel stability.

Another aggravating factor was crew exhaustion, the report said. They worked an average of 16 to 18 hours per day and usually slept two to six hours. Survivors’ testimony indicated that “all crew on board were deprived of sleep and most likely suffered from fatigue.â€

The “chronic fatigue†may have contributed to the captain’s decision to sail to Dutch Harbor and to diminished physical capabilities of the crew upon abandoning ship, the investigators wrote. The crew also should have had better training in the use of immersion suits and life rafts.

The investigative report emphasizes the need to maintain the watertight integrity of a vessel at all times. In addition to the open doors, witnesses said the fish-processing area may have had an insufficiently repaired weld seam and a corrosion problem.

“Close and dog all watertight doors, especially those exterior doors facing aft or leading into the house and processing spaces,†the Coast Guard wrote. “Do not allow these doors to be tied open while at sea. Masters should enforce closure discipline anytime the vessel is away from the pier.â€

Mariners also need to be intimately aware of the vessel’s stability characteristics.

“Owners and operators should know safe loading limits, and should periodically consult a naval architect to become completely knowledgeable about the limits of their vessel’s capability,†the Coast Guard said. “Masters aboard vessels with stability instructions should closely adhere to all guidance and conditions.â€

Alarms are necessary to provide early indications of a breach.

“Bilge alarms serve as the first warning of trouble and are especially critical in unmanned spaces. … Test bilge alarms at least weekly. Repair or replace them when they fail,†the Coast Guard recommended.

Masters should avoid allowing multiple tanks containing fuel or other fluids to be only partially full, the report suggested.

“Free surface refers to the condition when the surface of a liquid or liquid-like load is free to move. Think of it as the side-to-side energy of the sloshing. A free surface has the effect of raising the vessel’s center of gravity, an impact which is almost always undesirable,†the Coast Guard said.

“Minimize the number of tanks that are not either completely full or drained empty. If the vessel has instructions from a naval architect for the order of fuel tank consumption, follow those orders.â€

The Katmai disaster has prompted the Coast Guard to look at ways to improve the head-and-guts captains’ training and professionalism.

“We are considering safety and stability training requirements for fishing vessel masters as part of a fishing vessel safety rule-making project currently underway,†the Coast Guard report stated.

Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff