Henry Blake III, captain of the fishing vessel Katmai — lost at sea last week — testified today at a Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation. He described a nightmarish fight for survival in a life raft that kept flipping in rough seas.

Share story

ANCHORAGE — In testimony Monday, the captain of the fishing vessel Katmai — lost at sea last week — described a nightmarish fight for survival in a life raft that kept flipping in rough seas.

The vessel with 11 crewmen went down after midnight Wednesday, and through a long dark aftermath, Henry Blake III said, the life raft probably flipped more than 20 or 30 times. Three crewmen were lost from the raft, but Blake and three others managed to hang on until their rescue some 17 hours later.

Blake, of Massachusetts, was unsure what happened to one of the seven who made it to the raft, Carlos Zabala, of Helena, Mont. Two other men, Cedric Smith, of Portland, and Joshua Leonguerrero, of Spanaway, perished when the raft flipped early on in the ordeal, Blake said.

“I was tangled underneath the raft; when I came back from under the raft, there were three guys left and that was it and there was no canopy, no survival equipment,” Blake said. “Josh was gone. Cedric was gone.”

Blake’s testimony came on the first day of the Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation hearings into the sinking, which claimed the lives of five of the 11 crew and left two others missing at sea and presumed dead. The investigation is intended to determine why the vessel went down, and how such sinkings could be prevented in the future.

The 93-foot boat, which was fishing for cod with baited traps, was owned by Katmai Fisheries of Washington state. It was part of a fleet of vessels that catch, then head and gut fish in labor-intensive operations.

The safety record of such ships has been under scrutiny since 2001, when the Arctic Rose, another head-and-gut vessel, went down in the Bering Sea, taking the lives of 15 crew.

At Monday’s hearing, Marty Morin, a Katmai Fisheries official in charge of vessel operations, described maintenance work, repairs and modifications to the vessel in recent years as it switched from shrimp trawling to shrimp fishing with baited traps off Hawaii to fishing for cod off the Aleutians.

Coast Guard officials noted that the vessel had a 1996 stability test, an examination by a naval architect that details safe loading conditions and other important safety information.

That document said there should be a new stability test if the vessel changed fisheries. That was not done, said Morin, who said he was unaware of that recommendation.

Morin also said one of the vessel’s two life rafts was 24 years old, and the other was 20 years old. Though both were approved by the Coast Guard, the officials said that newer rafts have improved seams, canopies and other design features.

At the time the Katmai ran into trouble, it was returning to Dutch Harbor with a load of cod caught in the Bering Sea west of Adak Island.

Blake’s testimony indicated that the vessel’s problems began when a hatch to a stern compartment — known as a lazarette — somehow opened, and that area flooded and knocked out pumps crucial to steering.

Blake testified that the fact that the pumps could be knocked out by flooding was a cause of concern earlier in the trip since there was no backup system. Blake said he had hoped a backup system would be installed when the fishing season ended.

The protection against such flooding was a door that was supposed to be watertight when secured. But Blake speculated that the door might have been knocked open by a piece of equipment on the deck that might have broken loose as the Katmai rocked about.

Once the vessel lost steering, it listed to port side. Blake testified he still was confident that the water could be pumped out and that the Katmai would stay afloat. The pumping effort was headed up by the vessel’s engineer, Robert Davis, of Deming, Whatcom County.

Davis initially had reported that he made good progress in pumping out the water, and Blake testified he was confident enough to tell the crew that they could get out of their survival suits.

“Bob was convinced we were going to save the boat. He was sure we weren’t going to sink.”

Blake credited Davis with a courageous effort that continued up to the final minutes before the sinking.

Blake said the situation worsened when the Katmai began listing to starboard, rather than port, and water somehow intruded into the below-deck engine room and fish factories. Blake then told the crew to put their suits back on.

Blake said he eventually left the wheelhouse to check on preparations to abandon the Katmai should it begin to go down. That’s when the stern began sinking, he said.

“It was a slow, steady roll,” Blake said.

The crew headed overboard, with Blake and six others jumping into the water and swimming to a nearby life raft.

Blake did not know what happened to the four other crewmen.

Crewman Adam Foster, of Shoreline, said he saw three other crew as they worked to deploy the second raft, but he was unsure whether they made it off the ship.

In addition to Blake and Foster, survivors include Harold Appling and Guy Schroder, both of Anchorage. The deceased also include Jake Gilman, of Camas, Clark County; Fuli Lemusu, of Salem, Ore;, and Glenn Harper of Portland. Zabala and Davis remain missing.

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