Crewman says cargo load 'scared' the captain
As the Northern Belle left Seattle earlier this month, the crew was uneasy about the amount of cargo packed into its holds, according to one of three people who survived when the boat sank in the Gulf of Alaska on Tuesday. The captain was "scared of that load," he said.
Seattle Times staff reporters
As the Northern Belle left Seattle earlier this month, the crew was uneasy about the amount of cargo packed into its holds, according to one of three people who survived when the boat sank in the Gulf of Alaska on Tuesday.
The fourth person aboard, the vessel's captain, died.
Robert Jack said the 75-foot fishing-industry vessel rode so low in the water that the captain, Robert Royer, opted to take a slower route, avoiding the roughest water by hugging the shore.
"He was scared of that load," said Jack.
As a vessel used in the fishing industry, the Northern Belle was allowed to carry cargo with much less federal regulation and oversight than is applied to vessels used in other industries, according to Coast Guard officials.
Jack, who says he has 22 years of sea experience, believes that the heavy load was a significant factor in the Northern Belle's sudden sinking. He said the vessel listed to one side, and quickly sank. At the time it sank the seas were moderate for that area, according to Coast Guard officials.
He said the extreme tilt of the vessel before it sank made the evacuation much more difficult, and none of the crew was able to get into the life raft. Jack believes Royer struck his head going overboard and then drowned.
Jack's account of the events surrounding the sinking will be reviewed by Coast Guard officials as part of an investigation into what caused the boat to go down.
The Seattle-based Northern Belle was taking cargo to Dillingham, Alaska, when it sank according to Jack. It had been scheduled to be used as a tender, a vessel that takes on fish caught by other boats and shuttles the catch to processors.
The cargo was taken on in Seattle at Snopac Products, a processor with Alaska operations. Jack said it was intended for a rebuilding effort at a processing plant.
Jenna Hall, a Snopac vice president, said final decisions on loading of cargo are up to the captain, as operator of the vessel. She described Royer as an excellent mariner and "fantastic tenderman and dear friend."
For decades, fishing has been the most deadly of the nation's marine industries. In recent years, improved safety training, an increase in voluntary Coast Guard inspections and other measures have helped reduce the North Pacific toll. Still, last year, eight fishermen died off Alaska, and an average of 13 fishermen per year lost their lives there over the past decade, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Despite the hazards, fishing fleets are subject to far less regulation than other maritime industries.
Ken Lawrenson, a safety official in the 17th Coast Guard District Alaska, said most cargo vessels must undergo mandatory inspections, have licensed crew and detailed stability information, which guides the loading process, aboard the vessel.
Lawrenson said fishing-industry boats the size of the Northern Belle are not required to carry stability instructions. Many still choose to carry that information — known as a stability letter — on a voluntary basis, and one part of the Coast Guard investigation will be to determine what loading information was aboard the vessel. Lawrenson said many Alaska fishing vessels also submit to voluntary Coast Guard safety examinations, which include a check of required gear such as life rafts, survival suits and emergency-locator beacons.
Lawrenson said he inspected the Northern Belle in 2004 but the boat failed. He said there was no record of any follow-through to correct two deficiencies.
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Information from a KING-TV Interview with Robert Jack was included in this story.
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