SEATTLE (AP) -- When Jim Kelly heard the Arctic Rose had sunk in the Bering Sea with 15 men aboard, his first thought was that the boat had gone down in heavy weather, he told investigators.
''She was a long way from anywhere to hide, and she was a little bitty boat,'' Kelly told the Marine Board of Investigations -- three Coast Guard officers and a National Transportation Safety Board investigator.
The board convened a hearing this week on the 92-foot trawler's April 2 sinking.
Kelly, who'd skippered the Arctic Rose from January to April 2000, said Wednesday he didn't know what to think when he learned the end had come in relative calm -- 6- to 8-foot seas and 20-mile winds.
He's wondered about hatches that might have been left unsecured, about the boat possibly being ''hit by something no one knew was there'' and other scenarios.
But he said he hasn't come up with anything that would explain the lack of a Mayday call.
The first sign of trouble was a signal from the ship's emergency rescue beacon at 3:30 a.m. The Coast Guard, unable to raise the Arctic Rose's larger sister ship the Alaskan Rose just 10 miles away, did not reach the scene for more than four hours. Rescuers found skipper Dave Rundall's body, empty survival suits and an empty raft.
Answers may be found if investigators can get a look at the vessel, Kelly said. New Orleans-based Coast Guard Capt. Ronald Morris, who is chairing the proceedings, has said he is working to arrange that, using a camera-equipped submersible.
Kelly, who retired last year after 29 years at sea off the Northwest and New England, looked dubious when asked for suggestions to prevent such tragedies.
''I've lost lots of friends at sea over the years,'' he said.
''There's a certain amount of risk always involved in going to sea. When you can't accept that, don't go.''
Regulations may help, ''but you're never going to make it as safe as not going.''
Is there industry action that might help?
''That's assuming it's preventable,'' Kelly said.
''I think self-preservation'' and the investment involved encourage caution and care, he said, adding, ''I don't feel they're not inspected now.''
Politics and economics are an inescapable part of the equation, Kelly said. ''If there were no economics involved, none of this would be happening.''
His crew had monthly safety drills, and could muster at the survival-suit storage box in 5 or 10 minutes, he said. Green kids got into the survival suits at least once. The fish processors had two pretty straightforward routes to topside -- not much different from those for the skipper, mate and engineers.
And if the boat were not upright, how would things go?
''Impossible, I guess,'' Kelly said. ''I can't imagine getting out of a boat that was upside down. I don't know how you'd do it.''
The Arctic Rose's alarms were ''obvious and loud ... not something you could ignore,'' he said.
Because of size, the Arctic Rose was vulnerable to rough weather and had to return to port frequently to dump her catch.
''In another environment, she was a fairly large vessel. Up there, she was the smallest thing I'd been on,'' he said, adding that he tried to stay ''in sight of an island I could hide behind'' in rough weather.
She'd have done better if she was 20 feet longer and 15 feet wider, he said. But ''I saw her as a challenge -- I didn't see her as a problem.''
She was ''a work in progress,'' Kelly said, with owner Dave Olney of Arctic Sole Seafoods making improvements as he was able. He called Olney ''a conscientious man ... (who) tried to run a safe boat.''
So far -- two days into the two-week Seattle hearings, with an additional four days scheduled July 9-12 in Anchorage -- Olney has attended daily with his lawyer, Doug Fryer, who also questions witnesses. Relatives of the crew -- and lawyers for some of them -- also have been in attendance. Lawsuits have been filed in Seattle and Anchorage on behalf of four survivor families.
Kelly brought the boat back to Seattle for repairs in April 2000, he said. Her engine was burning out and she couldn't pull a net like she used to.
And then he retired.
He said he was ''glad to get off'' when the boat docked in Seattle. ''Part of that's just 100 days at sea,'' he said. Plus the boat was small and cramped -- ''a little boat in a big-boat fishery.''
Also testifying Wednesday were Susil Senevirante, former port engineer for Scansea, which managed the boat for a California owner from 1995-97; Scansea human relations manager AnnMarie Todd, who spoke about the increasing difficulty finding crew; and Eric Baumhagen, who did stability work on the Arctic Rose.
Senevirante was asked to survey the boat -- then called the Tenacity -- when it came back to Seattle from Alaska in early 1997.
It had been very poorly maintained, he said.
The vessel vibrated when it was motored to a Lake Union dry dock. Senevirante pulled the propeller shaft and found it ''worn out pretty badly.'' The shaft needed to be rebuilt and realigned, but Scansea told him the owner couldn't afford that.
Senevirante was subsequently told to look for another job. Scansea was in financial trouble, and the Tenacity was seized by a bank.
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