Two who served on ill-fated Arctic Rose share concerns

Posted: Wednesday, June 13, 2001

SEATTLE (AP) -- Two men who served on the ill-fated Arctic Rose -- and couldn't wait to get off it -- shared their stories with a Coast Guard panel investigating the fishing boat's sudden deadly sinking in the Bering Sea.

Fifteen men died when the 92-foot boat went down early on April 2.

There was no distress signal -- just an emergency locator beacon that summoned would-be rescuers to an oil slick, the body of skipper Dave Rundall, an empty life raft and empty survival suits.

''I hope by the end of this process we can bring closure to this tragedy,'' New Orleans-based Capt. Ronald Morris, who is leading the three-man Marine Board of Investigations, said Tuesday. National Transportation Safety Board investigator Robert Ford is also attending the marine board's two-week proceeding here and a four-day followup in Anchorage.

Kevin Ward, who served as master of the ship when it was named the Sea Power, took it to India in late 1993 to survey fishing opportunities there for then-owner Dr. D.K. Stokes of Eureka, Calif. The boat returned early -- ''We didn't catch enough fish to make chowder'' -- and Ward said he was glad to leave the Sea Power behind in 1994, in Seldovia on Alaska's Kachemak Bay.

He found the boat ''very tender'' -- difficult to keep evenly balanced, achieved by moving fuel around in its tanks. Ward felt it had ''an unnatural roll to it, almost like a shimmy.''

And there was a problem with the right door to the processor. As a result, he said, one calm day off India, ''the boat heeled over hard enough to throw me from the captain's chair.''

In September 1995, management of the boat was taken over by Scansea Inc., which has since gone out of business. Todd Wheeler served as factory foreman on the vessel -- renamed the Tenacity -- for about six months, overseeing the processing crew until early 1996.

He didn't like the feel of the vessel when a big catch was hauled up over the processing section.

''If the seas were bad, we'd really rock and roll,'' said Wheeler. ''With the added weight on top, we would really feel that.''

One time, in ''a pretty bad sea, with a pretty big bag,'' or catch, the weight forced the back of the boat below the surface.

''The whole stern was basically under water,'' Wheeler said.

And water came in the hydraulic, weather-tight doors to the factory, ''spraying in where the gaskets should have kept it closed.''

Often, as the crew was gutting and freezing the catch, fish guts would clog screens on the four sump-pumps and there'd be inches of water on the factory floor, he said.

He expressed concern about the propeller shaft, at the bottom of the boat where the freezers were.

''I know there was water probably coming from below,'' Wheeler said. It seemed they had to pump it out ''every few days.''

''The shaft keeps playing on my mind,'' he said.

He's thought about the 15 men who died on the Arctic Rose ''about a thousand times,'' Wheeler said, wondering if they were all asleep when it happened, if someone left the factory hatch open.

Also testifying Monday were Thomas Neikes, who oversaw the vessel's Mississippi conversion from a scallop boat to a bottom fishing vessel; naval architect Bruce Culver, who laid out stability guidelines for the boat after those modifications; and David Bauman, former financial officer for Scansea, which replaced the boat's engine.

Bauman last saw the vessel after it came out of drydock in Seattle -- and took on water. Diagnosis: the shaft bearings needed to be replaced, a $50,000 to $60,000 job -- too much for Stokes or for Scansea.

It was seized by a bank, Bauman said.

The Coast Guard has an Oct. 1 due date for its report, but Morris said he likely will request extensions. Any Coast Guard recommendations will be in that report. Ford's recommendations can be filed before his report, he said.

Both expressed hope for regulations that could prevent similar tragedies. ''The overall goal is to have a safe environment for fishermen to work in,'' Morris said.

But some family members expressed concern Monday that nothing will change.

Jennifer Tingey of Montesano -- whose baby brother Jeff Meincke, 20, of Lacey was on board -- had hoped for a fix to reduce the risk for the next bunch of kids out to make big money in the high-risk Alaska fishery.

''When you speed, you get a ticket,'' she said, exasperated at the lack of oversight in the industry, which has long resisted government regulation.

If regulation will help, the panel will take action, Morris said.

But first, ''We need to find out what happened.''

Joan Branger of Warden, Mont., said she and her son, Shawn Bouchard, 25, knew there were risks when he and pal James Mills decided on their Alaska adventure.

''I knew men could go over the side, that men could drown. But it never crossed my mind that the boat could sink,'' she said.

When her son called and told her that crew member Nathan Miller was leaving the Arctic Rose at Dutch Harbor, Alaska, before the run was over, ''I had that gut feeling,'' she said, that her son should leave, too.

''But he said, 'Mom, I made a commitment.'''

When fishing industry recruiters come to Montana next time around, she said, ''Joan Branger will be out front, saying, 'Do you really know what you're getting into?'''

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