Ex-captain grilled at hearing on Alaska Ranger sinking
Steve Slotvig is a burly veteran of the Bering Sea fisheries with a gold anchor earring and, as former captain of the Alaska Ranger, an...
Seattle Times staff reporter
Steve Slotvig is a burly veteran of the Bering Sea fisheries with a gold anchor earring and, as former captain of the Alaska Ranger, an insider's knowledge of the vessel and crew.
Slotvig said he quit the command March 5, less than three weeks before the Alaska Ranger sprung a stern leak and went down in the Bering Sea. His abrupt midseason departure was spurred by fatigue and a troubled relationship with a Japanese fishmaster.
"I needed the break. I had been up there a long time, and when he got angry with me, I asked to be put on another vessel," Slotvig testified to Coast Guard officials Friday in Seattle.
Slotvig is a high-profile witness in the marathon Marine Board of Investigation hearings into the circumstances surrounding the sinking that claimed the lives of five of the 47 crew aboard the factory trawler. The hearings began in Alaska on March 28.
His Friday testimony triggered some of the most testy, combative exchanges yet as Coast Guard investigators pressed Slotvig to describe the widespread ice during the winter fishing season and his relationship with fishmaster Satoshi Konno, a representative of Japanese seafood buyers who died when the vessel sank.
Konno's influence on the vessel has been a point of contention because federal laws require licensed American captains such as Slotvig to be in command. Seattle-based Fishing Company of Alaska, which operated the Alaska Ranger, has fishmasters assisting American captains to find and catch fish.
Earlier this week, several former crew members testified that Konno appeared to wield as much, if not more, power than Slotvig.
On Friday, Slotvig said he was always in command of the Alaska Ranger. But he conceded that Konno was allowed to take the helm of the boat. And Slotvig said Konno's speed through the ice, which was up to 6 inches thick and covering up to 90 percent of the ocean's surface in the area, sometimes caused him concern:
"I didn't argue about safety ... I slowed the boat down and he would get angry — it didn't matter to me."
Earlier this week, crewman Ryan Shuck testified that he had overheard a heated argument between Slotvig and Konno about ice speed. Shuck said the argument happened just before the vessel returned to port and Slotvig quit.
Slotvig said he didn't recall that argument. He said the boat was safe and he didn't think the ice could possibly have damaged the stern area and somehow triggered the March 23 leak that sunk the boat.
Slotvig said he left the boat because of a dispute with the fishmaster that occurred in port in Unalaska, Alaska, when Konno was upset in delays getting back out to sea.
Slotvig is still employed by Fishing Company of Alaska and was flown from Unalaska to attend the Seattle hearing, which has been attended by John Neeleman, an attorney who represents the company.
Slotvig appeared rattled as he was pressed by the Coast Guard officials, who appeared skeptical at times of Slotvig's account, and his relationship with the company attorney.
Deep into Slotvig testimony, Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Ben Hawkins asked him about an earlier statement about the impact of the ice on the Alaska Ranger's hull.
"Do you recall saying something to the effect that it wasn't banging but it scraped?" Hawkins asked. "... Do you recall turning toward Mr. Neeleman and winking?"
"I categorically deny that ever happened," Neeleman said. He accused Coast Guard board members of misrepresenting the testimony of earlier witnesses as they questioned Slotvig.
After the blowup, the hearing was adjourned for lunch.
Slotvig also was questioned about an assistant engineer who had admitted in earlier testimony to having drunk alcohol aboard the vessel despite a zero-tolerance company policy toward booze.
"Were you aware of that?" asked Coast Guard Capt. Mike Rand.
"Negative; never witnessed it," Slotvig said.
Under further questioning, Slotvig acknowledged that the vessel's cook had alleged the assistant engineer drank aboard the vessel. Slotvig said the engineer was required to check in at the wheelhouse before watch to ensure his sobriety. Slotvig said he never found any problems during those checks.
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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