Alaska Ranger survivors recall jarring ice collisions
Two survivors of the Easter Sunday sinking of the Alaska Ranger say sharp ice encounters on previous fishing trips might have made the vessel vulnerable to leaks.
Seattle Times staff reporter
UNALASKA, Alaska — Two survivors of the Alaska Ranger's sinking say sharp-ice encounters on previous fishing trips might have made the vessel vulnerable to leaks.
The sailors said the worst ice encounters were in February, when the Alaska Ranger — with fish master Satoshi Konno pushing for speed — plowed through broken ice pans.
"Every time the boat would hit the ice ... there was a hard jerk," Ryan Shuck said of one rough return to port.
"You could feel the whole hull vibrate," said Jeremy Freitag, another crewman.
Ice impacts on winter fishing trips also have gained the attention of the Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation, which is examining the circumstances surrounding the March 23 sinking of the vessel. The ship, operated by Seattle-based Fishing Company of Alaska, lost five of the 47 crew members.
The vessel last fall was in a shipyard, where its hull was worked on and inspected. Still, major flooding enveloped the rudder room and another compartment just above, according to inquiry testimony.
On Monday, Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board officials began to gather information about the ice and the conduct of fish master Konno, who died during the Easter Sunday sinking.
Shuck and Freitag are not in Unalaska this week. They have returned to their home states and are expected to testify later in Seattle.
They said in separate telephone interviews Monday that the relationship between Konno and a previous skipper of the Alaska Ranger was fraught with tension over vessel speeds through ice.
They say that the former skipper, when he was at the helm, went very slowly through the ice. And they say he repeatedly complained to them about the fish master's efforts to ramp up the vessel's speed in areas of floating ice.
"We make our money on a quota by being fast," Shuck said. "So, the fish master wanted to get in, get offloaded, and get back out quickly. The captain wanted to be fast. But he also wanted to be ethical and make us safe."
Shuck said the most jarring ice encounter came as the vessel was rushing back to port to unload fish in mid-February, and the captain was awakened by jarring. Shuck said he heard a yelling match between the skipper and Konno over the ice speed.
After returning to port, the skipper left the vessel, Shuck said. The former skipper could not be reached for comment Monday.
Fish masters from Japan, such as Konno, serve on some factory trawlers, helping to direct the operation of fishing nets and oversee processing.
These foreign fish masters may work in the wheelhouse, but federal law prohibits them from acting as a skipper at the helm, according to Coast Guard officials. But there has been considerable tension over the sway that fish masters might have over the U.S. skippers, an issue pursued Monday at the Coast Guard hearing.
Crewman Evan Holmes testified that the fish master often was in the wheelhouse but directed fishing operations — not the overall operation of the vessel.
Holmes, who had served aboard the vessel for two years, said that the Alaska Ranger went slowly through the ice and that he was not aware of any harsh encounters.
Gwen Rains, a federal fishery observer for the past two years, gave a different perspective. She alleged that a captain risked getting fired if he defied a fish master.
"The fish master runs the boat — they just do ... on some of the vessels," testified Rains, who also survived the sinking.
Fishing Company of Alaska challenged Rains' competence to weigh such relationships, since she is not a licensed officer of a vessel.
The Alaska Ranger's final voyage began from Unalaska on March 22. There were no reports of ice in the water, and a 30- to 36-hour trip lay ahead to fish for mackerel in the Bering Sea.
"It was a full-bore steam, so it was a rough ... ride on the way out, that's for sure," Freitag said.
About 2 a.m. the next day, the alarm sounded for flooding in the stern.
Several witnesses said that in the half-hour before abandoning ship, they saw Konno with his survival suit partially on, smoking a cigarette and appearing unusually calm for his position in the wheelhouse of a fishing vessel about to sink.
Konno is the one crewman whose body was not recovered. One crewman testified that he probably went down with the ship.
However, in testimony today, Makoto Oide, a surviving crew member, said Konno abandoned ship. They were in the ocean together, but the fish master did not make it into a life raft.
Staff reporter Jonathan Martin contributed to this report. Hal Bernton: firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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