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Originally published Tuesday, November 8, 2011 at 8:17 PM

Corrected version

Trawler rescued in Bering Sea as storm nears

The U.S. Coast Guard came to the rescue of a Seattle-based fishing trawler in the Bering Sea on Tuesday as a storm with hurricane-force winds and 40-foot waves moved rapidly toward the western Alaskan coastline.

Seattle Times staff reporters

quotes You couldn't pay me enough to work on one of these boats in those conditions. I don't... Read more

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The U.S. Coast Guard came to the rescue of a Seattle-based fishing trawler in the Bering Sea on Tuesday as a storm with hurricane-force winds and 40-foot waves moved rapidly toward the western Alaskan coastline.

The Rebecca Irene, a 146-foot trawler with 34 people aboard, lost power in one of its two engines early Tuesday and had limited propulsion. It called for Coast Guard help about 4:45 a.m. PST time.

The Coast Guard Cutter Sherman reached the vessel about 1 p.m. and transferred 20 nonessential crew, Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis said. Fourteen crew remained on board.

The Sherman, which is 370 feet long, was to escort the Rebecca Irene while a private tug was contracted to tow the Rebecca Irene to safety, the Coast Guard said.

The trawler was 115 nautical miles from its nearest safe haven — a harbor at Unimak Island, Francis said.

The engine failure was not storm-related and occurred in calm seas, she said.

By 6 p.m. Tuesday, seas were 6 to 8 feet high, with winds of 21 mph, Francis said. But hurricane-force winds were on the way and scheduled to strike early Wednesday.

"It's going to be a tough ride for everyone," Francis said.

The vessels were well-prepared, Francis added, and the Rebecca Irene had three life rafts with survival suits.

The storm was traveling at 60 mph and could reach the beachfront city of Nome by late Tuesday, with winds hitting 85 mph.

The epic storm comes during an ebb in the major Bering Sea harvests for pollock and crab; most of those fleets are through for the year, according to state and federal fishery officials.

But early November is prime season for more than two dozen vessels that set longlines of baited hooks for cod and more than a dozen other vessels that trawl for flatfish. These trawl vessels include the Rebecca Irene.

The storm was predicted to produce fierce winds and waves that could top 40 feet, and vessels involved in the November harvests were taking heed.

Among the longline fleet, some vessels were heading to port, while others planned to stop fishing until the storm passed, said Kenny Down, executive director of the Freezer Longline Coalition.

"Our fleet is primarily larger vessels that could ride out the storm," Down said. "It's just the state of nature that the best cod fishing coincides with the worst time of the year for the weather."

The Bering Sea king-crab harvest took place in October, with more than 60 vessels participating, but that season has largely wound down, according to Trent Hartill, an Alaska state biologist based in Unalaska.

The pollock season, which involves many Seattle-based trawlers, also has concluded for the year, according to Krista Milani, a fisheries official with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The wind and waves had started picking up late morning Tuesday, and by afternoon the ocean had started to churn in shades of gray.

"It's pretty ominous looking, and the waves are getting bigger," said AnnMarie Rudstrom, a teacher in the village of Brevig Mission, 70 miles north of Nome.

Stores in Nome were pretty well stocked, but some businesses closed early.

The bigger concern was for Alaska Natives in the 18 villages in the region, where the brunt of the storm was supposed to hit.

The storm was expected to produce at least a 10-foot surge, forcing dozens of coastal communities to make emergency preparations.

"It is very dangerous," said Andy Brown, lead forecaster for the National Weather Service in Anchorage. "Everybody is spreading the word."

Material from Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf and The Associated Press is included in this report. Jeff Hodson: 206-464-2109 or jhodson@seattletimes.com

Information in this article, originally published Nov. 8, 2011, was corrected Nov. 9, 2011. A previous version of this story gave an incorrect length for the fishing vessel Rebecca Irene. The boat is 146 feet, not 143 feet.

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