Commercial fishing is one of the most dangerous jobs anyone can do, and the dangers extend even to ice. A tragic fishing boat accident that occurred in Alaskan waters in February of 2017 left six people dead and millions in property damage. The incident report was recently released, and the investigation found that icing of the boat in the rough winter weather and a failure of judgment on the part of the captain of the vessel were the causes of the capsizing and sinking.
Capsizing and Sinking in the Bering Sea
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) incident report was just released for the tragic accident that caused six fatalities on February 11, 2017. The vessel Destination was fishing and crabbing while also on the way from Dutch Harbor to St. Paul Island in Alaska to deliver a supply of bait when the accident happened.
The vessel capsized and sank nearly three miles off the coast of St. George Island in the Bering Sea. The boat must have sunk quickly as there was no distress call. The Coast Guard only received a signal later when the emergency position-indicating radio beacon sent out an alert. The rescue team was able to find the location, debris from the boat, including life rings labeled Destination, and a sheen of oil but were unable to recover any of the crew. All six were determined to be missing and presumed dead.
Freezing Spray and Poor Decisions
The NTSB report following a lengthy investigation determined that the likely cause of the accident was accumulation of ice on the fishing vessel. The weather forecast in the area that day included heavy freezing spray. This can lead to ice accumulation on vessels and is a typical occurrence in the Bering Sea in the winter months.
Freezing spray is dangerous because it can cause a boat to become lopsided and it also raises the center of gravity of a boat. This makes it less stable and increases the risk that a vessel will capsize. Other boats in the area at the same time reported anchoring just off shore to avoid the icing or stopping frequently to break ice from the boats. They reported significant accumulations of a quarter of an inch to an inch per hour.
The final incident report concluded that it was accumulation of ice and failure to take action by the captain that led to capsizing. There was no indication that the vessel slowed down at all, attempted to anchor offshore, or stopped to remove ice.
Making Icy Conditions Safer
The NTSB also made recommendations for crab and fishing vessels in winter waters to avoid the dangers of icy, freezing spray. These include sailing with fewer crab pots during icy conditions, as this reduces the surface areas that can accumulate ice. Slowing down and changing heading can reduce ice accumulation, and taking steps to remove ice while moving can also reduce risks.
A final note from the NTSB warned that crew fatigue can make dangerous conditions even riskier. Poor decisions made by the captain in this tragedy could have been partly the fault of being overworked and tired. Or, fatigued crew members may have been unable to remove ice from the vessel. Fatigue is a common danger on fishing boats, as crew tend to work long hours. This can lead to a number of accidents and puts people at risk of injury and even death.