Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Alaska Ranger - shitty job, shitty boat

The Alaska Ranger, which sank Mar 23, 2008 killing five crew, in Dutch Harbor(Photo by U.S Coast Guard) .

Based on the TV show The Deadliest Catch the general public may get the impression that the Alaska fishing fleet is made up of small but seaworthy boats like The Time Bandit and the
Northwestern with experienced captains like third generation fisherman Sig Hansen with an experienced crew with maybe one greenhorn, often the younger brother of another crew member.

That's not the whole story. At the other end of the spectrum , its about Gulf of Mexico mud boats, beat to hell in the Gulf and then sold cheap to low cost / high profit companies like The Fishing Company of Alaska (FCA) , converted to factory trawlers and run by down on their luck fisherman, crewed by inexperienced fish factory workers.

From GQ, The Longest Night
Kenny had a shitty job on a shitty boat.....He was one of forty-seven captain and crew on the Ranger, a 200-foot tub that sailed out of Dutch Harbor,..... She was built in 1972, with a flat bottom designed for the warm, calm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, then retrofitted into a head-and-gut trawler and bought cheap at auction in the ’90s by the Fishing Company of Alaska. She had a new factory, where the fish were processed, but the rest of her was old and decrepit, with seals painted over so many times that the doors wouldn’t latch tight and a rusty shell that had been patched and rewelded over the years. That flat bottom gave her an unnatural, unnerving roll in the big swells of the Bering Sea, but she could stuff well over a million pounds of fish in her holds before she’d have to off-load at Dutch.
The real scandal though is not that captains, mates and engineers have to work on an unseaworthy vessel, at least they know they're risking their lives to make a buck. What about the men and women recruited to work in the fish processing factory? Many of them have never been to sea, are out of work, out of cash and out of luck, and are lured by the promise of a relatively high paying job but have little concept what they are in for on the Bering Sea on an old, beat to hell, converted Gulf mud boat.

Likely these workers are on the boat because they got backed into a corner and thought a job on a factory trawler was a way out, never dreamed they would find themselves, at 3 am, floating in the waters of the Bering Sea in 8-10 foot seas praying for a Coast Guard helo to pluck them out of the sea before they succumbed to hypothermia.

The reason fishing vessels have traditionally been unregulated is, in part, because presumably a professional fisherman can judge the level of risk involved in a fishing operation. This isn't the case on these "head and gut vessels" such as the Alaska Ranger. The crew hired to process the fish need not have any experience at sea and often don't. There is likely a presumption on the part of newly hired crew recruited by place like this that the company that has hired them to process catch will provide them with a safe work place. This is not the case.



The Alaska Ranger which sank March 23, 2008 killing five crew members was a converted Gulf of Mexico OSV (Offshore Service Vessel) sold, modified and put into service in Alaska. The Alaska Ranger was not inspected, evidently not watertight internally and not seaworthy.
The Ranger was built in 1973 and operated as an offshore supply vessel in the petroleum industry. In 1987, the vessel was purchased by Fishing Company of Alaska, renamed the Alaska Ranger, and converted to serve in the fishing trade.
Evidently the rudder broke loose, dropped off and the steering gear room flooded. In an seaworthy vessel this alone should not be enough to cause the vessel to sink. An inspected vessel is required by regulations to be watertight internally to ensure that an incident such as this will not cause the loss of the vessel.

The Wikipedia article is here with links to audio and video.

From the NTSB:
The National Transportation Safety Board determined today that the probable cause of the sinking of the Alaska Ranger was uncontrolled, progressive flooding due to a lack of internal watertight integrity and to a breach of the hull's watertight envelope, likely caused by the physical loss of a rudder.
Regulations do not require that vessel like the Ranger be inspected.
Most commercial fishing vessels are exempt from U. S. Coast Guard inspection by law and must comply with only minimal safety requirements for lifesaving and fire protection equipment. The Alaska Ranger was part of a group of vessels enrolled in a Coast Guard safety program called the Alternate Compliance and Safety Agreement, which subjected vessels to more than the minimal safety requirements. The Alaska Ranger was enrolled in the program but had not yet met all requirements at the time of the sinking.
"Because commercial fishermen are involved in one of the most dangerous professions in the world, it is essential that the vessels they work on be subject to mandatory safety inspections," said NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman.
Somehow these vessel still manage to dodge regulations.
the NTSB’s recommendation that the Coast Guard seek legislative authority to inspect commercial fishing vessels (Safety Recommendation M-87-64) has not met with a similar success. Although in 1992, the Coast Guard submitted a plan to Congress that would require inspection of all commercial fishing industry vessels, Congress did not grant that additional authority. As a result, the commercial fishing vessel industry is still largely unregulated.


-There are some interesting comments at Bitter End post Struggle for power on doomed trawler regarding this type of vessel when they have a heavy load and the rudder stock gland is submerged. According to the NTSB report the modifications done to the Ranger when it was converted to a trawler resulted in an increase of draft of 2 and 1/4 feet.

- Another angle, fishing regulations: Jones Act Blog has posted an article regarding NTSB recommendation that the National Marine Fishery Service to review regulations intend to limit catches but which strongly discourages replacement of aged fishing vessels:
The NTSB strongly worded letter criticized NMFS policy, stating: "NMFS' decision to permit vessels to be replaced only if they are lost or deemed ineligible to fish runs contrary to the interest of safety. Replacing a vessel after it sunk is too late."
- Article from Fishing Journal The struggle for power on doomed Bering Sea trawler (PDF) good article with details about the vessel owner, The Fishing Company of Alaska and the buyer Anyo Fisheries. The owners of each were married to each other at one point.

Bryant's Maritime Blog last month posted NTSB – report on sinking of fish processing vessel Alaska Ranger- the report MAR0905 PDF here.

UPDATE: From comments - my husband was on that boat when it sank. i nearly lost him. thank you for telling it how it was. it was a disaster in the making. he said it was the roughest boat to ride on. flat bottomed boats have no business being in such rough waters. thank you kami


tricky said...

i just saw the hour show devoted to this incident..very heart wrenching to see the guy who lost his brother..they didn't really discuss the issues regarding the age and design of the boat

Anonymous said...

I spent three years on factory trawlers in the Bering Sea, the first year on one of these flat bottom death traps the"ARICA". Everytime I read about a tragedy on one of these boats I thank god my two brothers and I survived and wonder how many more must sink before these boats are taken off Alaskas waters

John S. said...

I worked on The Ranger during 9-11. I initially was recruited and sent to Dutch to work on a different boat for the FCA. I witnessed a attack of a white man by three Samoans who beat this man so bad he was transported to the hospital with 3 broken bones all in his face. I careful exited the boat at dawn and returned to the bunks to request a ride back to Seattle. I did approach the Captain for the boat to report my witnessing the attack. I was told to be quiet and if I did not I would most likely not make it back to Land once we set sail. I was marooned in a bunk house for 12 days before a Man came to me offering a job on a new boat "The Ranger" This man turned out to be the Captain who was notified by the Main office in Seattle about my issue with the abusive nature of the Deck Hands and the boo sons on the first boat. He promised me no unfair treatment and that his boat is run by Whites and that I would be protected because of the color of my skins. I thought about it for a day and decided I came to Alaska to test myself, and to go home now would only result in me looking back questioning why I didn't try it. I spent 42 days aboard the ship, and it was by far the hardest most grueling test of my life. We were not notified of 9-11 until early Oct and the word track the Captain used was we were at war with Afghanistan and that they attack the pentagon. No talk of the Trade Towers or any thing else. The Coast Guard boarded our boat before heading back into Dutch and before hand the Captain order all of us to throw away Beer, Pot, and Fish that we were not suppose to have cause it was out of season. I look back now knowing that boat was the scariest ride and realizing now that I was so close to danger makes me wonder how many other boats out there too share the same issues..

Anonymous said...

What are regulations for? They ensure that unethical people, in spite of their lack of ethics, still need to follow standards to ensure safety to people, things, and the environment. Lack of regulations, that's what you'll find in Third World nations. That's one reason why they remain Third World nations. Those who fight regulations do so for one purpose ONLY - money. Regulations would mean the ship's investors would need to shell out money to maintain their ship in better repair than the investor's would choose to do without regulations. So investors fight it by crying, "Regulations are bad!" and finding idiots to brainwash into supporting their "No regulations" agenda. The money people prefer to rely on sheer luck and numbers games that their investment won't be one that tanks because of that lack of regulations. The people who may be harmed as a result? Well, they don't seem to figure highly in the money count.

Fred said...

I spent a year on this boat in 2004 as an oiler working for the cheif engineer for half of it and in the fish factory for the other half. I greased the rudders in the rudder room as part of my duties. The Chief Engineer drank in his room, and it was pretty obvious that he was on drugs. When I asked him about all of the leaks in the rudder room I was told to pack them with grease. I was new, had never worked on a boat before, and it was probably not worth the risk for the money. There was obvious negligence and the drinking and drugs done by the officers on the boat was ridiculous.

Anonymous said...

I worked for a company called trans marine and worked on the ranger in 2001 that boat was a total pile of shit like all the other fca boats im suprised it took that long to sink. The other comment about the the kind of people that worked the boats was true i have never been around so many creepy low lifes at once, Im thankful that i only helped repair those boats and slept at the grand alution inn for 2 months and then got the fuck out of dutch.

Erica Rodriguez said...

My father was the captain of the Alaska Ranger. He was a very experienced fishing captain with over 35 years of experience more than 20 of those were for the Fishing Company of Alaska. Anyone that knew my dad would tell you that he was very conscientious about safety and that he would go out of his way to protect his family and crew. he was called up to this boat that he had never been on, at the very last minute because the other captain quit abruptly and left. FCA took advantage of my dad's kindness over and over again until they killed him. I miss my dad every single day- he was my best friend, always took my side and saw the best in people even when they were at their worst. At 25 years old, I lost both of my parents within a year of each other.
I want everyone that reads this thread to know that my father died trying to save his crew. He did everything possible to save them...I was told by a crew member at my dads memorial that he was the last off the boat and he had his radio sticking out of his too-big survival suit still calling for help. He was a good, kind, honest man. Anyone that knew him loved him.

Ron Rowley said...

I worked on the Alaskan Ranger in 1990 - 1991 when the boat was somewhat "new". We had an incident where the same type of flooding occurred in the rudder room, and we were told to get into our survival suits at the time. The flooding was contained, so we were lucky.
The maintenance of the boat and crew preparedness must have gone downhill in the following years, because I know at the time I was on the boat we had drills to get into survival suits, launch life rafts, and secure areas should such an event take place.
The crew back then was a mixture of experienced fisherman and a few "newbies", myself included, and not a bunch of "low lifes" as previously stated. Drugs and alcohol were strictly prohibited by the captain, and we had one engineer fired when it was discovered that he had alcohol in his cabin. It's a shame to hear the ship and operations went to crap, and that led to the deaths of 5 individuals. That ship was my home for over nine months, and the news of its sinking was very sad. RIP to all who were lost.

Anonymous said...

I was on the Ranger from 90 to the summer of 95. Best time of my life. No low life's then no drug's the captain was very good. Good boat. Good crew.