They called the crew the "Virginia Boys" because they were known for their Southern charm and for peppering their conversations with "yes...

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They called the crew the “Virginia Boys” because they were known for their Southern charm and for peppering their conversations with “yes ma’ams” during the years the Ocean Challenger sailed from Westport.

Now two are dead and one is missing after the commercial fishing boat capsized in three-story waves in the Alaskan Gulf on Wednesday.

Many in Westport are stunned. They had shared beers, pool and games of pingpong with them when the 50-foot trawler was docked in the Grays Harbor County town, before a March 2005 change of ownership. When LLC of Shoreline bought the boat, some of the original crew came with it.

The Ocean Challenger had been enjoying one of the best seasons in some time and was nearing the end. Many of the Virginia Boys had already left, said Bobbi Foland, of LLC. Two of them — Kevin Ferrell, 28, of Lynchburg, Va., and Walter Foster, 26, originally of Tennessee but who had been living in Westport, remained on.

So did the skipper, David “Cowboy” Hasselquist, 51, of Hoonah, Alaska, and Steve Esparza, 26, of Kodiak, Alaska.

Foster and Hasselquist were identified as the dead crewmen and Esparza as the one missing. Only Ferrell survived and has been released from a hospital in Anchorage.

According to the Coast Guard, a passing ship, the Overseas Joyce, heard a mayday call from the Challenger and saw it capsize in 30-foot waves and hurricane-velocity winds. The Joyce contacted the Coast Guard, which dispatched the cutter Munro, a Jayhawk helicopter and C-130 airplane. A basket was lowered and Ferrell was rescued and the bodies of Hasselquist and Foster recovered. There was no sign of Esparza.

The Coast Guard, which is continuing to investigate the accident, said Ferrell was the only one wearing a survival suit.

The high waves and wind made the search difficult by air so only the Munro continued the search for Esparza into the evening. The search was called off later Thursday night.

The Challenger crew had been fishing for black cod 60 miles from Sand Point, Alaska, when the storm hit, Foland said. The boat sank quickly.

“I do think they were caught off guard by the weather,” said Armand Audette, manager of Trident Seafood, a fish-processing plant in Sand Point, where the Challenger frequently off-loaded its catch. The boat was based in Adak, Alaska.

“I guess everyone knows there are risks. There is peril whenever you go out in rolling seas,” he said. The close-knit fishing town is devastated at the loss. “There is the feeling that there but for the grace of God go I.”

While most of the Virginia Boys came and went around Westport over the years, Foster was the exception. Several years ago he met Laurie Cowell, fell in love and moved into a little house in Westport. It was home when he wasn’t at sea or visiting his family in Tennessee.

“He was a super guy,” said Dalie Morgan, bartender at the Knotty Pine. “Just a nice young man.”

“He was a real Southern gentleman, a great guy with a big heart,” said Valerie Bender, housekeeper at the Islander Resort. “He liked going out on the boat, the water, the salt air, the waves. He just loved to fish. He’ll be greatly missed.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or nbartley@seattletimes.com