The Sunday sinking of the Alaska Ranger came during a major Coast Guard effort to improve the safety of the head-and-gut fleet, an aging...

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The Sunday sinking of the Alaska Ranger came during a major Coast Guard effort to improve the safety of the head-and-gut fleet, an aging group of more than 50 factory ships that included the Seattle-based vessel now at the bottom of the Bering Sea.

The program requires vessel operators to patch up corroded hulls and make numerous other improvements to their ships. Much of this work was done on the Alaska Ranger when it was hauled to a dry dock in Japan last fall by its owner, Fishing Company of Alaska. But the vessel still had not gained a full-compliance certification in time for a January deadline, and was seeking an extension, according to Dan Hardin, a Coast Guard fishing-vessel safety coordinator in Seattle.

“They had been working pretty hard but still had not gotten everything done,” Hardin said.

The Alaska Ranger’s sinking claimed four lives and left a fifth crew member missing. It was the latest in a series of accidents among the head-and-gut fleet, which uses longlines and trawl nets to catch sole and other fish that are then frozen onboard. In two other high-profile disasters, the Arctic Rose sank in 2001, killing 15 crew, and the Galaxy caught fire in 2002, killing three crew.

Those accidents prompted the Coast Guard to take a close look at the head-and-gut fleet, which included many vessels converted from other uses. It found plenty of trouble spots.

“There were very serious stability, watertight integrity, training and firefighting issues,” said Seattle Coast Guard Cmdr. Chris Woodley.

Mike Szymanski, a representative of Fishing Company of Alaska, said the Alaska Ranger, built in 1973, was a stable, well-maintained boat. Szymanski said owner Karena Adler has been a big supporter of the Coast Guard safety program.

But in years past, some former crew have had concerns about the ship.

Richard Canty, who briefly skippered the vessel, said it “was a terribly tender boat” that had a tendency to roll. “She was the most unpleasant boat to drive … ,” he said.

Claude William Sterner, a former Alaska Ranger crew member, said Fishing Company of Alaska had a good safety ethic. But he was concerned about what he saw on a 2005 trip, when he was asked to help pump out a below-deck storage area that had more than 5 feet of water.

“I thought it was a really old boat,” Sterner said Monday. Monday night, he decided to accept a job and head back out to sea on the Alaska Warrior, a sister ship owned by the company.

Although the Alaska Warrior and others like it are regulated as fishing vessels, Coast Guard officials eventually concluded that the head-and-gut ships were actually factory ships that should be held to a higher standard. But the standard — known as a classed vessel — was so tough that none of the old vessels would have been able to qualify, according to Coast Guard officials.

So instead, in 2006 they came up with an “alternative compliance,” which required a series of investments to improve vessel safety, and industry officials agreed to make the upgrades by January 2008.

Coast Guard officials said Monday there has been a lot of progress, and that most of the vessel operators did make the January deadline. They were reviewing requests for extensions on a case-by-case basis, Hardin said.

In the months ahead, the Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board will conduct a joint investigation into the circumstances surrounding the sinking of the Alaska Ranger.

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