Poor maintenance, watertight integrity cited in sinking of Alaska fish processor

Alaska Ranger, a fish processing ship that sank in the Bering Sea in 2008, killing five people, was poorly maintained and its crew was careless in ensuring watertight integrity, the U.S. Coast Guard has concluded.

Ill-fitting survival suits were a factor in some of the fatalities in the Alaska Ranger disaster, the Coast Guard said in its investigative report. One of the deaths occurred when the victim fell from the rescue basket while the Coast Guard crew was having trouble pulling him through the helicopter’s cabin door.

The 189-foot Alaska Ranger sank March 23, 2008, after it started taking on water, probably because of corrosion in the area of the Kort nozzle struts, where fractures had appeared in the past, the Coast Guard said in its January 2011 report. That conclusion differs from the National Transportation Safety Board’s 2009 report, which said the ship had probably lost its rudder.

Coast Guard investigators tour the fishing deck of Alaska Ranger’s sister vessel Alaska Warrior during their investigation of the 2008 sinking. (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer Sara Francis)

Flooding aft quickly spread through the engine room and fish factory areas of the head-and-guts vessel, eventually causing the stern to be submerged and forcing the crew of 47 to abandon ship about 120 nm west of Dutch Harbor, Alaska.

“The cause of the casualty was a breach in the watertight envelope of the hull and progressive flooding in the engine room and other spaces at the stern of the vessel,” the Coast Guard wrote. The initial problem was “likely related to the vessel’s poor material condition and may have been related to the Kort nozzle struts, which were believed to have created excessive local stresses where they attached to a corroded area of the hull.”

The circumstances behind the loss of the 35-year-old ship and the lives of five people are now a topic in industry training programs. The Alaska Ranger incident reveals shortcomings in multiple areas, including vessel maintenance, stability, crew training, emergency procedures and even the industry’s culture, said Capt. R.J. Burns, a fishing vessel safety trainer who owns Bluewater Marine Consultants in East Lyme, Conn. The disaster led to proposed new regulatory frameworks, including mandatory Coast Guard inspections for fish processing ships.

“That ship was having all manner of structural issues because of its age. The Kort nozzle housings likely caused some stress fractures in the hull plating. They used doubler plates in a lot of their maintenance, which is not allowed on commercial vessels,” Burns said.

With the poor stability and lack of watertight integrity, “it doesn’t take long for this to get out of hand,” he said. “It created a cascade of errors that resulted in progressive flooding and loss of the vessel and loss of life.”

Coast Guard personnel on the cutter Munro assist a rescued Alaska Ranger crewman, whose survival suit was too big for him. Investigators said many of the victims donned survival suits that didn’t fit properly. (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard/Kurt Fredrickson)

When the crew abandoned ship amid 20- to 25-foot seas and 35-knot winds, only 22 people made it into life rafts. The Coast Guard said 25 did not, including all five who died — the captain, mate, chief engineer, fish master and one fish factory worker.

The investigative report said one fatality occurred when the victim fell out of the rescue basket while the Coast Guard crew was trying to lift him into the helicopter. The person’s survival suit was full of water, and during the hoist he partially slid out of the basket. As a result, the crew had difficulty getting him in through the cabin door. While the flight mechanic went to grab a knife or shroud cutter to drain water out of the suit, the victim plunged an estimated 60 feet back into the sea and was later found dead.

The report said the Coast Guard crew deviated from proper procedure, possibly because the chopper was running low on fuel and they were rushing to rescue as many people as they could. They lifted the basket before the rescue swimmer had given the “ready to be hoisted” signal, and the rescue swimmer failed to maintain eye contact with the basket all the way up to the helicopter.

Alaska Ranger was owned by FCA Holdings Inc., operating as Fishing Company of Alaska. FCA had neither a written training program nor any written emergency procedures, the Coast Guard report said. Rather, the company relied on the expertise of captains and other officers to train the crews. The Coast Guard said all three engineers were under-licensed for their positions on that voyage.

Officials at Seattle-based FCA could not be reached for comment.

Witnesses testified that Alaska Ranger‘s watertight doors were poorly maintained and were routinely left open. When the alarm sounded on the night of the emergency, most of the watertight doors in the engineering area were latched open with a hook, one crewmember said.

No operator should allow such habits, said Capt. Anthony Ford, a fishing vessel safety consultant with AB Marine Services Inc. in Monroe, Wash.

“It’s easier to leave all the doors open all the time, and in good weather conditions there’s nothing wrong with that,” Ford said. “But when the weather gets bad or they’re in shallow water, you close those doors to maintain watertight integrity. A lot of fishing vessels don’t have a procedure for this, and that’s where training issues come in.”

Ford said the Alaska fishing industry’s culture sometimes works counter to instilling sound safety practices among crews.

“The fishing industry is somewhat similar to the tugboat industry in that there are very few outsiders running these ships,” Ford said. “If the captain wasn’t doing the right things to start with, then a whole population of people who were trained by him are doing the wrong things.”

The Coast Guard said Alaska Ranger suddenly moved astern as the crew was abandoning ship — putting the deploying life rafts out of reach. The vessel’s controllable-pitch propellers had behaved this way once before when it lost hydraulics. The officers failed to realize that they should have shut down power.

“The astern movement impeded the ability of the crew to safely enter life rafts directly from the vessel,” the report stated. “It is unknown if the captain or mate were aware of the remote main engine emergency shutdowns located in the pilot house.”

Enough survival suits were available for everyone on the ship, but the suits were not matched to each individual’s needs.

“Not all crewmembers received survival suits that were the correct size,” the report said. “As a result, some of the larger people had difficulty putting on the survival suits. Several of the smaller crewmembers received suits that were too large, allowing excessive water to enter the suit. … At least two survival suits took on so much water that the survival suits were purposely cut to drain water to facilitate recovery.”

At the conclusion of the rescue, including those who had died, good Samaritan fishing vessel Alaska Warrior had picked up 25 people and the Coast Guard cutter Munro had 21. Alaska Ranger‘s fish master was never found. The ill-fitting survival suits may have been a factor in a few of the deaths, the report said.

“It seems the people who didn’t get into the raft had suit issues,” Burns said. “Overall, they did a good job getting all those people off, and if the suits had worked, they probably would have all made it.”

The poor condition of the ship and a lack of attention to emergency training placed Alaska Ranger at risk, Burns said. Most fishing vessel sinkings happen for the same set of reasons, he added.

“It’s vessel maintenance and crew familiarity and crew training almost every single time,” Burns said. “It’s the dollars involved, and there’s a certain bravado in the safety training, and they think they don’t need it. Sometimes they don’t want to ask questions about safety and what is good marine practice.”

When it sank, Alaska Ranger was participating in the Alternate Compliance and Safety Agreement program, but the vessel had not yet qualified because of multiple outstanding maintenance and safety issues.

The Coast Guard recommends that fisheries regulations should encourage operators to replace old vessels with newer ones that meet modern safety standards. The report includes recommendations for tighter enforcement and suggests that Congress should establish a mandatory inspection program for fish processing ships. The recent Coast Guard Authorization signed by President Obama requires dockside safety checks every two years.

“A lot of times industries get regulated because of the faults of the lower 10 percent. That’s what happened to the tugboat industry,” Ford said. “If you had mandatory regulations, perhaps the (Alaska Ranger deaths) wouldn’t happen.”

Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff