The Seattle fishing boat Arctic Rose sank in the Bering Sea on April 2, 2001, without a call for help. There had been no explosion or fire...
The Seattle fishing boat Arctic Rose sank in the Bering Sea on April 2, 2001, without a call for help. There had been no explosion or fire, no collision or grounding. The deadliest sinking in the history of the U.S. Bering Sea fishery apparently happened because a crew member had left the rear hatch open at night, perhaps because he had gone out to relieve his bladder. Fifteen men drowned in the dark.
The core of this story is enough to have made a fine magazine article: a description of the boat, the people who worked it and the place they fished; the testimony of others who had worked on the boat and the thoughts of investigators. One can imagine an article in, say, The Atlantic Monthly.
Hugo Kugiya will read from “58 Degrees North: The Mysterious Sinking of the Arctic Rose” at 7:30 tonight, Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
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To make a book of it, Hugo Kugiya, Seattle-based author of “58 Degrees North: The Mysterious Sinking of the Arctic Rose” (Bloomsbury, 265 pp., $24.95) and Newsday correspondent, provides more: an essay on flatfish and the head-and-gut fleet (slang that refers to the way the fish are prepared — beheaded and eviscerated once they’re hauled on board), and a history of the Aleutians and Dutch Harbor. He explores the history of the Arctic Rose — its murky origin, its various owners, its pathetic insolvencies.
The Arctic Rose was originally a Gulf shrimper. The boat’s final owner consulted a naval architect when he bought it, though not when he put extra concrete ballast into it. That was to increase stability. It did that, but it also made the boat easier to sink.
Kugiya describes the boat as “a floating box.” At 92 feet, it was “the runt of the fleet,” suspiciously small for trips far into the Bering Sea. As a boat it was “no one’s first choice.” That is why so many of its crew were first-timers. They were in a Darwinian business. Kugiya writes, “Fishing is not egalitarian.”
This marginal boat and crew nonetheless had a tough skipper, Dave Rundall, and an involved owner, David Olney. Olney had bought the boat because it was the only one in that fishery for sale. He had invested thousands fixing it up, installing all required safety equipment. When the skipper requested extra safety equipment, the owner bought it. He put his own life on the line: He spent six weeks on it a few weeks before it sank. When it did sink, his brother, Mike Olney, was on it. By Kugiya’s estimation, this was not an uncaring owner, but a miscalculating one.
In the behavior of boats there is feeling and science, and either may deceive. To the skipper, the added ballast made the boat feel better. Other fishermen said — after the fact — that the Arctic Rose seemed to roll too far. The stern was too low in the water. Compared with other boats, it didn’t feel right.
Though Kugiya artfully switches gears so that he does not remain too long on one topic, most of the terrain covered is, by necessity, background. The sinking of the Arctic Rose lasted perhaps four minutes, with no living witnesses. The author describes what probably happened, but the mystery is never conclusively solved.
One thing that would have helped is a map — surely something needed in a book named for a measurement of latitude. The book also needs photos of the boat and the crew.
Much of this is a story about the men on the boat — guys who had grown up with alcoholic parents or brothers who committed suicide, of devout Christian boys from Montana, illegals from Mexico with false papers and names, and an impetuous brawler on the lam from an arrest in Puyallup. All found adventure or refuge on a cramped, smelly, isolated boat, trying to make a living in one of the most dangerous places on Earth.
Despite their differences, Kugiya writes, “They were the same kind of men. … Men without lives full of options, whose schemes depended too much on luck. They would never be wealthy, but they hoped and dared to be rich for just a moment.”