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