As the Alaska Ranger flooded in the Bering Sea, the propulsion system flipped into reverse. Now, Coast Guard officials are trying to learn...

As the Alaska Ranger flooded in the Bering Sea, the propulsion system flipped into reverse. Now, Coast Guard officials are trying to learn more about this disconcerting event as 47 crew struggled to abandon the Seattle-based ship.

In a hearing Tuesday in Seattle, Coast Guard officials peppered a witness with questions about operating the propulsion system, known as a controllable-pitch propeller. They asked why the captain didn’t disengage the propeller when it went into reverse, apparently complicating efforts to abandon the vessel and contain the flooding. The hearing was part of a Marine Board of Investigation into the March 23 sinking.

The board learned the system would switch — by default — into reverse once electrical power was lost. That appears to be what happened on the Alaska Ranger as the flooding cut the electric power in the predawn hours before it sank, claiming the lives of the captain, first mate, chief engineer and two other crew members.

The vessel was operated by Seattle-based Fishing Company of Alaska. Bill McGill, a company fleet-operations manager, testified that — even with the power out — there should have been a way to disengage the propeller so the vessel wouldn’t go into reverse. But he didn’t know why the Alaska Ranger officers did not do that.

“I wasn’t there, and I don’t know what was going through their minds,” McGill said.

In earlier hearings in Unalaska, in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, some survivors said the vessel’s reverse course made it more difficult to deploy and climb into life rafts.

In an interview with The Seattle Times last month, Gwen Rains, a federal fishery observer who survived the sinking, said the backward motion of the vessel appeared to worsen the flooding.

“That’s when things started getting supercritical,” Rains said. “We started going down pretty fast after that.”

The hearings in Seattle began Tuesday and are expected to last about a week. Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board officials will call survivors, former crew members and others with knowledge of the vessel.

On Tuesday, Coast Guard officials sought information about a wide range of issues, including the vessel’s travel through ice; efforts to comply with a new Coast Guard safety operation; alcohol and drug policies; and crew-member training.

At the hearing, McGill said that Fishing Company has been investing millions of dollars to comply with a new Coast Guard safety program for the Alaska Ranger and six other vessels that catch and process fish.

“We’re fishermen, but we’re not dummies, and the North Pacific is a rough place to make a living,” McGill said. “Anything that advances seaworthiness and safety of a vessel is an admirable goal. You can check with anyone who sails on a vessel up there, and I think they will agree.”

Hal Bernton: hbernton@seattletimes.com or 206-464-2581