BREMERTON — Dan Mattsen went to bed Dec. 31 with his fishing boat, the Amatuli, finally snug in port in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, after a three-day trip through difficult seas. He wished a happy new year to his wife back home in Bremerton, then retired to his cabin.
He woke up the next morning to horrendous news, broken through text messages of condolence on his cellphone. The Scandies Rose — the crab boat boat he co-owned — had gone down in rough seas off the Alaska Peninsula. Of the seven crew, two had been rescued and five were lost, including the captain, Gary Cobban Jr., his longtime friend and business partner.
“I first thought, this can’t be true. Not the Scandies Rose and not Gary … It was mind-numbing … a nightmare, ” Mattsen recalled in an interview Monday in Bremerton. He has struggled along with investigators from the Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to understand what went so terribly wrong after the 130-foot vessel left Kodiak, Alaska, to start a new winter season in the Bering Sea.
Mattsen during the past week has reached out to the families of the survivors. He also has answered hours of questioning from investigators about the accident, which came in a difficult stretch of water amid 20-foot seas. A marine forecast for the area called for heavy freezing spray, which can coat a boat with ice that can dramatically reduce stability.
Mattsen and his boat had begun their voyage in Kodiak, leaving several days earlier than Cobban. He recalls how Cobban, whose father also was a Kodiak-based crabber, was eager for the new season, when the boat would have the harvest rights to some 600,000 pounds of snow crab. Cobban, 60, had been in Kodiak to rework some gear, and planned to conduct a brief fishery for cod that he would use to prospect for the best spots to catch crab.
“Gary has been running boats since he was about 16 years old … and he’s been running larger boats probably since he was 20 or 21,” Mattsen said.
The boat’s crew included Cobban’s son David Cobban, 30; Brock Rainey, 47; Seth Rousseau-Gano, 31, and Arthur Ganacias, 50, an Alaskan, as well as two survivors — Dean Gribble Jr. and John Lawler.
Mattsen said he had exchanged radio messages with Cobban on New Year’s Eve, the day of the sinking.
“He just said the weather was crappy and my weather was crappy, too. I mean, I was just kind of doing typical captain commiserating,” Mattsen said.
Coast Guard interviews with the two survivors indicate that when disaster struck, the younger Cobban was in the wheelhouse sending out a mayday distress call, according to Mattsen. It is unclear whether he or any of the other missing crew had time to get into survival suits and evacuate the sinking vessel, which rolled on its side and then went down stern-first.
Gribble, in a YouTube video posted last week that was later withdrawn from public view, talked about issues with safety equipment. He noted that an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) failed to go off to signal the vessel’s position.
Mattsen said the safety gear met regulatory standards. He said the EPIRB goes off as it pops to the surface, and might have got caught underwater as the vessel sank.
“Clearly emotions are running raw,” he said. “I am very happy he [Gribble] made it. Our crew is family.”
The Scandies Rose has long been a workhorse of the Alaska crab fleet. It was built in 1978, and since Mattsen and Cobban took over ownership of the vessel in 2008, it has been brought to Seattle each year for maintenance and pulled out of the water every other year for additional work, according to Mattsen.
The Scandies Rose sinking comes less than three years after the Feb. 11, 2017, demise of another Alaska crab boat — the Destination, which sank in the Bering Sea, killing all six crew amid treacherous conditions that included freezing spray.
A Coast Guard investigation that concluded in 2019 found that the Destination’s pots were heavier than assumed by the captain, and could have thrown off stability calculations. The Coast Guard also found that an on-board booklet to guide the loading was out of date.
Mattsen said he and Cobban tried to learn from the Coast Guard findings about the Destination as they prepared the Scandies Rose for the 2020 harvests.
Last spring, they weighed the Scandies Rose pots and found they were significantly heavier than previously thought. That prompted a revision in the loading booklet to prevent the vessel from carrying too much weight as pots were stacked on deck at the beginning of the harvest seasons.
Mattsen said reports indicate the Scandies Rose was carrying no more than 195 pots as the vessel left Kodiak. That was below the 208-pot limit allowed in the loading booklet, he said.
In the months ahead, Coast Guard and NTSB officials will continue to investigate the sinking.
“We want to know what happened because if the Scandies Rose can sink in these conditions, any crabber can,” Mattsen said.
In the aftermath of fishing-boat accidents, a legal process, guided by maritime law, will unfold that sometimes ends up in U.S. District Court and sometimes is settled out of court as families of the deceased and survivors seek compensation for their loss.
Mattsen has hired two Seattle attorneys, Mike Barcott and his son Dan Barcott. Families typically hire their own attorneys.
The Scandies Rose carried liability insurance with proceeds that may be divided up among survivors. Mike Barcott on Monday declined to disclose the dollar amount of this insurance.
In the days ahead, families of the lost crew will be holding individual services, according to Mattsen.
A broader memorial for all the crew will be scheduled once the winter crab season is over and friends and colleagues now at sea are back home, Mattsen said.