Only the Sea Knows Boat's Fate

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you want to find a lonely place, try St. Paul Island--a dot on the globe 300 miles off the coast of Alaska, in the middle of the Bering Sea. Then plot a point 235 miles farther northwest. Make it in the middle of the night, make it cold, put a small fishing boat there. And imagine, if you can, what happened when the Arctic Rose disappeared.

The U.S. Coast Guard opened hearings here this week to try to unravel a mystery--a sinking that claimed 15 lives and became the worst U.S. fishing disaster since 1951.

"There's a very good likelihood that we may never know what happened that night. But we will probably have some ideas," said Capt. Ronald J. Morris, who is heading the four-member panel. "We have no vessel and we have no eyewitnesses, so we've got our hands full trying to put together the circumstances."

If fishing accidents were unusual, then ports around the world wouldn't have memorials and long lists with the names of the dead. But most of the time there is the comfort of an explanation: a hull pierced by a rock, a radio call about a violent storm, a broken bilge pump, a hatch that got left open.

The only clue the Arctic Rose left was the lifeless body of its captain floating in the 34-degree water near an empty life raft and some cold-water survival suits.

No Time to Don Emergency Gear

The ship's emergency locater beacon had deployed at 3:30 a.m. on April 2, triggering a Coast Guard search. But why did the Arctic Rose go down so fast that the crew couldn't put on emergency gear? Why didn't they call for help? What could have gone so catastrophically wrong in relatively calm seas?

Those are the questions the Coast Guard panel will try to address over the next two weeks in Seattle. A final report is due in October.

"This might have been his last trip [anyway]," Lou Anne Rundall said of her son, 34-year-old Dave Rundall, the Arctic Rose's skipper. The captain had a good lead on a job near his home in Hawaii so he could be closer to his wife and three boys.

The Arctic Rose, a 92-foot commercial trawler, was smaller and slower than its competitors. And it never made much money. Crew members worked 16-hour days catching, gutting and then freezing fish in the ship's on-board plant while fighting off heaving seas and freezing spray. But often, they came home with barely half the money they'd hoped to earn.

When former Capt. Jim Kelly got off the Arctic Rose in April 2000 after a bad winter, he decided it was time to quit. "I was glad to get off," he told the Coast Guard panel. "Part of that is just being 100 days at sea. . . . But we hadn't made much money. It was just a little boat in a big-boat fishery."

In the first days of testimony here, a series of witnesses complained that the 13-year-old boat had been poorly maintained before Arctic Sole Seafoods took it over in 1999. They said it could be skittish in rough waters.

Kevin Ward, who fished the Arctic Rose in India during the mid-'90s, remembered getting thrown out of the captain's chair when a door on the trawling net got caught and the boat heeled 30 degrees. "The boat almost felt unnatural from what I'm used to," he testified. "It had an unnatural roll to it, almost like a shimmy."

Kelly said the boat handled fine until you got to the bottom between two swells. "When it got, say, in the 12-foot [swell] range, you didn't go in the trough. She became uncomfortable, unbearable, whatever you want to call it."

New Processing Plant Made Vessel Top-Heavy

Investigators have zeroed in on the Arctic Rose's processing plant, installed a few years ago on top of the boat because there was no room to put it down below. The boat was top-heavy, but architect Bruce Culver testified that the design passed all stability tests under normal operations. But if the pumps that take waste water off the floor of the plant got clogged--as witnesses said they often did--and left several inches of standing water, Culver said, "the stability probably would look drastically different. . . . If you were in a situation like that, it would have a dramatic effect."

When the previous management took over the Arctic Rose in 1997, plant engineer Susil Senevirante said, it had been poorly maintained. Mucky oil covered the main engine, the propeller shaft was pitted and leaking water and there were tools and oily rags strewn around the engine room.

"Overall, I felt . . . it was kind of a neglected vessel," he testified. He said he had made up a list: The propeller shaft needed to be rebuilt and realigned. It needed new bushings, a complete hull service. He wanted to change the oil, pull the head on the engine, inspect the freezer hold and steam clean the bilge keel. His supervisor said he'd take it up with the boat's owners.

"Three days later, I was told the owners did not have the funds to build the boat the way I thought it should be--and I was told to look for another job," Senevirante said.

David Olney, the owner of Arctic Sole Seafoods, is scheduled to testify later this month. The company clearly invested money in repairing the boat before it set out from Seattle on Jan. 13 on its last voyage. But Jim Eagle said he turned down a job as deck boss because he didn't like the looks of things.

"They were late getting out of port. They should have been up there [in Alaska] much sooner, and they were scurrying a lot. They were not organized," Eagle said in an interview. "The boat did not look well maintained from the outside. You'll just see a lot of rust on a poorly maintained boat. The big problem with that is, you don't know where the next problem's going to come from.

"The other thing was, for the waters up north it was small--only 92 foot--and the processor was on the deck, above the water line. It's just not a good thing. A 92-foot boat in the Kodiak area isn't too bad, but I like a big boat when I go up north. . . . You're fishing in big waters, and big things come up."

After fighting mechanical problems in Seattle and enduring slow fishing in the Bering Sea, the Arctic Rose finally began hauling in fish. "We are catching a few fish here, but the weather is rough again," Rundall said in an e-mail to his wife about 4:50 p.m. April 1. "I love you and I miss . . . your pretty face."

Reports of Net Full of Fish

A sister ship, the Alaskan Rose, was fishing about 10 miles away and heard from Rundall later that night that he had taken in a full 10-ton net--enough to keep the processing factory working through much of the night. The next communication from the ship came when the emergency beacon went off. The Alaskan Rose didn't get the Coast Guard's e-mail and radio alerts until 7:40 the next morning. They didn't spot Rundall's body and the empty survival suits until about 10 a.m. Another body was seen briefly before it sank.

Kelly said he's gone over in his mind all the things that could have gone wrong. A hatch near the stern left open, then a bilge alarm that failed--that could explain it, he said. "But I haven't been able to come up with a scenario that explains no mayday call.

"I've lost a lot of friends at sea, a lot of boats that didn't come back," he said. "There are things that happen at sea that are uncontainable. . . . I've seen a boat lost because a 10-cent fuse blew at the wrong time and you couldn't operate the rudder.

"God only knows. I don't."

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