SEATTLE (AP) -- Fishing in Alaska, as the Arctic Rose had been doing since 1994, was an act of faith for a relatively small boat built to go after shrimp on the Gulf Coast.
But Seattle-based Arctic Sole Seafoods' president Dave Olney had been making improvements since 1999, when he bought the 92-foot boat outfitted as a trawler in Mississippi before it was brought West.
Under Olney, the vessel underwent substantial changes intended to improve its stability while allowing it to handle larger catches -- a critical factor in profitability.
That retrofitting has become a focal point of a Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigations inquiry into its April 2 sinking in the Bering Sea. Fifteen men died in the accident, one of the worst for commercial fishing in decades and one of the most mysterious ever.
The ship sank without even a distress call. Rescuers summoned by an emergency beacon found an oil slick, one body, an empty life raft and empty survival suits.
The panel is about midway through two weeks of hearings here that will wind up June 26, followed by a July 9-12 session in Anchorage.
The inquiry panel, assisted by a naval architect from the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Center in Washington, D.C., spent several hours last week looking into complex stability calculations performed at Jensen Maritime Consultants in Seattle in the spring and summer of 1999.
Jensen Maritime prepared guidelines for the safe operation and loading of the Arctic Rose -- guidelines that included several restrictions.
Eric Blumhagen, an engineer in training at Jensen who did the calculations with oversight from a senior naval architects, told the panel the Arctic Rose operated with ''more restrictions than average.''
Ensuring that stability recommendations are followed is the responsibility of the boat owner, Blumhagen said. Olney, participating in the hearings with attorney Doug Fryer, is scheduled to testify during the Seattle session.
Olney wanted the Arctic Rose modified to handle a maximum deck load of 40,000 pounds. Former crew members have testified that its average catch was 10 to 12 tons -- 20,000 to 24,000 pounds -- with a maximum of about 14 tons, still less than 30,000 pounds.
Even after considerable work -- including welding more than seven tons of lead to the keel as ballast -- the boat at times could handle catches of only 5,000 pounds while complying with stability requirements.
Lt. George Borlase, a Coast Guard stability expert, said the boat had to have weight low in its hold to balance weight brought on deck.
Catches could become larger as its freezer hold was filled with fish, but even under the best conditions, the maximum load on deck was not to exceed 21,000 pounds.
''When you told Mr. Olney that he would not be able to carry the deck load that he wanted, and in some cases his haul-back would be an eighth of what he wanted, what did he say?'' asked Robert Ford, a National Transportation Safety Board investigator sitting on the panel with three Coaet Guard officers.
''I don't remember,'' Blumhagen said.
Tom LaPointe, who served aboard the Arctic Rose for three winter months in 2000, said he wasn't aware of the stability requirements issued five months before he joined the crew.
Under questioning by Fryer, LaPointe said he may have seen a Jensen Maritime folder in the wheelhouse. But he said he didn't think it was an updated manual and that he never saw the restrictive loading tables.
The Arctic Rose also was required to keep its No. 1 fuel tank in the bow fully loaded for ballast. That tank held 30 percent of its fuel. The rest of its fuel load -- in four tanks along the sides of the hull -- had to be burned in a specific sequence to keep the boat stable.
The guidelines also required the small fish-processing factory on the rear of the main deck to be ''weather- or water-tight'' at all times. Excessive water sloshing in the factory area could compromise stability.
''In my opinion, it was impossible,'' LaPointe said.
The big hatch between the deck bin and the factory leaked, he said.
Another witness, marine surveyor Carl Anderson, said the boat must have ''turtled'' -- tipped over so rapidly nobody could get out -- though he couldn't say how that might have happened.
LaPointe, a 12-year Bering Sea veteran now mate on a 190-foot factory trawler, suggested a chilling chain-reaction scenario.
''No single event would have put that boat down so quick,'' he said.
The Arctic Rose was heavy in the stern, LaPointe said. An undetected leak into the lazarette, a hatched storage area on deck where the steering machinery is housed, could quickly sink the boat's stern enough to allow water to flood into the rear-deck factory and from there into the freezer hold.
''Once that happened, it would be all done,'' he said.
At 3:30 a.m., when the beacon began emitting satellite signals, the men who processed the catch likely were asleep in their cramped quarters just forward of the factory. If the factory flooded, there would only be a single escape route -- up a stairway, through the wheelhouse to the deck, where survival gear was stored.
''If you find yourself thrown out of your rack with six other guys, it would be confusing,'' LaPointe said.
The captain and the mate, in a stateroom behind the wheelhouse, would have a better chance of escape, he said.
''But if the vessel was totally capsized, there would be no access,'' he said. ''None.''
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