Safety alert about controllable-pitch props issued following Alaska Ranger sinking

In response to the Alaska Ranger disaster earlier this year, the Coast Guard has issued a safety alert emphasizing the need for vessel officers to understand their controllable-pitch propeller systems.

A good Samaritan vessel searches for survivors of the Alaska Ranger sinking on March 23. (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

Five men died after the 189-foot fish-factory ship sank in the Bering Sea on March 23. Forty-two others survived. Members of the crew have said the vessel’s rudder room flooded, and a Marine Board of Investigation continues to try to identify the cause.

In a safety announcement in early July, the Coast Guard revealed that two of Alaska Ranger‘s three life rafts zoomed ahead of the vessel at the moment they were launched, out of the reach of the imperiled mariners. That’s because Alaska Ranger was backing when the crew launched the rafts.

The blade pitch of the ship’s propeller system was causing the sinking head-and-guts vessel to make “considerable sternway‚¬VbCrLf at the moment the crew was abandoning ship, the Coast Guard’s safety alert said. Although the Marine Board of Investigation’s inquiry wasn’t finished this summer, the Coast Guard issued the alert because it felt there was an immediate need to educate mariners about the problem.

“The Coast Guard strongly recommends that owners, operators and masters of vessels with controllable-pitch propellers understand the design and operation of the system,‚¬VbCrLf the safety alert said. “This includes the primary and emergency sources of power for both the control and main systems, the location and procedures for using alternate control stations and the locations of the emergency shutdowns.‚¬VbCrLf

Based on testimony from the crew, the Coast Guard said most of those aboard Alaska Ranger could not reach a life raft when they needed it.

An empty life raft from Alaska Ranger floats in the sea following the rescue of its occupants.  (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

“The crew experienced difficulty with launching and entering the three liferafts because the vessel was making considerable sternway when the order to abandon ship was issued,‚¬VbCrLf the Coast Guard said. “Evidence indicates the main engines were still running and the vessel was backing with significant astern pitch. Consequently, two of the liferafts quickly traveled forward past the bow of the vessel when they were launched.‚¬VbCrLf

All of the 22 crewmembers who were able to enter the life rafts survived. All five mariners who perished were among the 25 people who never made it into a life raft, the Coast Guard said.

“Attempts to retrieve the liferafts using the painter lines were unsuccessful,‚¬VbCrLf the safety alert said. “As a result, the majority of the crew members were forced to jump into the 34-degree (Fahrenheit) water and attempt to swim to the liferafts.‚¬VbCrLf

The operator of Alaska Ranger was the Fishing Company of Alaska, based in Seattle. The company’s attorney, Michael Barcott, declined to comment, citing several lawsuits the company is facing over the incident.

The catastrophic flooding of the vessel occurred about 120 miles west of Dutch Harbor. The initial alarm from the rudder room sounded at about 0300. By 0500, the crew was donning survival suits in preparation to abandon ship.

The dead included the ship’s captain, chief engineer, mate and one crewman. Alaska Ranger‘s fish master was missing and presumed dead. Two Coast Guard helicopters and a sister fishing vessel rescued the 42 survivors in 10-foot seas and 25-knot winds.

In response to the sinking, the Coast Guard urged mariners to practice various emergency drills while wearing survival suits.

“All crew members should understand that immersion suits will affect their dexterity, limit mobility and may make it more difficult to launch survival craft, particularly when the survival craft are covered with snow or ice,‚¬VbCrLf the safety alert said. “Crew members responsible for launching the survival craft should practice and be able to do so with their immersion suits on.‚¬VbCrLf

Crews also should attempt to keep lifesaving gear free of snow and ice, the Coast Guard said.

The safety alert also recommended that:

‚¬. Vessel masters and officers should maintain situational awareness, especially during emergency situations involving flooding.

‚¬. They should take note of the vessel’s speed, heading, heel and trim and understand their impact on the crew as they abandon ship.

‚¬. Masters should adjust emergency procedures to account for circumstances such as weather, seas, crew experience and vessel condition.

‚¬. When abandoning ship, the crew should make every effort to enter the life raft or lifeboat directly. If they must enter the water, they should stay together and try to reach a life craft or climb onto floating debris as soon as possible.

‚¬. Emergency drills should be held for various situations under actual conditions, not just routine procedures such as donning immersion suits. All crew, including bridge and engine-room personnel, should understand what to do and practice often.

By Professional Mariner Staff