Two weeks of Coast Guard hearings into the sinking of the Seattle-based Destination begin Monday. They will put a spotlight on safety in the crab-boat fleet, and are expected to include testimony about the recent exploration of the sunken vessel by a remotely operated vehicle.
The Destination sits on the bottom of the Bering Sea, listing heavily to its port side and still carrying roughly a third of the steel-framed pots the six-man crew planned to use in a winter crab harvest off Alaska.
In two weeks of Seattle hearings that begin Monday, Coast Guard officers will hear testimony from the owner of the crab boat, former crew and other industry and government officials as they gather clues to what went so horribly wrong when the crew perished Feb. 11.
The hearings are scheduled to include information about a deep-sea expedition to the sea bottom by a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) deployed in late July from the Coast Guard cutter Healy. This ROV was equipped with a camera to capture sea-bottom images, and the Healy crew also was able to snag and pull up a crab pot cut- loose from the Seattle-based vessel.
‘”They spent about two days on top of the Destination,” said Cmdr. Scott Muller, who will chair the Marine Board of Investigation. “There were some challenges. That part of the Bering Sea is particularly known for its treacherous currents.”
The Destination went down several miles off St. George in the Pribilof Islands, in an area known for fierce tides.
These hearings represent the highest level of Coast Guard inquiry, reserved for the most serious maritime casualties and include a representative of another federal agency — the National Transportation Safety Board.
Investigators are expected to come up with a probable cause of the accident, and produce a final report that typically includes recommendations on how to make the industry safer. But these investigations are slow-moving, sometimes taking years to complete.
Searchers found a life ring, buoys and tarps but no signs of the crew — and no Mayday radio calls were picked up before it went down.
The images gathered by the ROV could provide clues.
During the hearings, the chilly Feb. 11 weather off the Pribilofs, which included snow squalls, is expected to be scrutinized. The conditions likely generated freezing spray that — if not removed from the vessel — could have increased the risk of something going wrong during a passage through an area of strong currents where the accident occurred.
Daher Jorge, captain of the Polar Sea, in a May interview with KUCB in Unalaska, said his vessel was quickly coated with a thick layer of ice on Feb. 11 when it was in an area not far from the Destination.
Investigators also will hear testimony about a photograph taken of the vessel as it left port with a deck full of crab pots.
Mike Barcott, a maritime attorney who represents the vessel owner, said a former Destination crewman who reviewed the photo concluded the crew had 200 pots, which was within the safety limits set for the vessel. “This was a very stable boat,” Barcott said.
The Destination was part of an Alaska crab fleet that has made improvements in safety, shedding a reality-TV reputation as the “Deadliest Catch.”
Before the sinking of the Destination, the last Alaska crab boat to go down with loss of life was the Big Valley in 2005; five crew were killed.
That’s a big turnaround from the 1990s, when more than 70 people died through the course of the decade, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Some of the improvement comes from tougher Coast Guard oversight that has cut the number of boats carrying too many pots on deck. Overloaded boats become top heavy, and less seaworthy, which makes them more vulnerable to sinking in rough weather.
“The casualty data is clear … stability and safety compliance checks played a huge roll in reducing capsizing events and associated fatalities in the Bering Sea crab fleet, said Chris Woodley, a retired Coast Guard officer involved in fishing-industry oversight.
Woodley said safety also was improved in 2005 by a major change in the harvests that replaced a free-for-all competition with a system that gave a set allocation of poundage to each vessel. That gave crab skippers more flexibility to not fish in the worst weather, and it led to a smaller fleet of experienced crew as older, less efficient boats were retired.
The Destination was owned by David Wilson, of Edmonds, and had a crew of skilled veterans. They were Capt. Jeff Hathaway, Larry O’Grady, Raymond Vincler, Darrik Seibold, Charles G. Jones and Kai Hamik.
The families of the crew have reached financial settlements with the vessel owner, although they still need court approval, according to Barcott.
For both Wilson, who is scheduled to testify Monday, and family members of the deceased, the hearings will be a painful public review of the winter tragedy.
“We as fishermen all know the dangers of fishing, especially in cold weather, in the cold of winter. I am so filled with grief I can barely go on. Your sorrow is my sorrow,” wrote Wilson in a statement read at a March memorial service in Ballard.