After a two-year investigation, the U.S. Coast Guard has released its findings regarding the devastating F/V DESTINATION accident that took the lives of all six crew members aboard the vessel. According to Captain Lee Boone, Chief of Coast Guard Investigations, “It just wasn’t one thing”.
On February 11th, 2017, the crew of the Seattle-based crab boat, DESTINATION set off into the Bering Sea with a stability report that was more than 20 years old, an exhausted crew, and freezing spray and ice that overloaded the vessel.
“Since 1993, some changes had been made to the vessel,” Captain Boone said. “Those should have been incorporated into updated stability instructions that the master could follow.”
Changes in vessel stability can come from modifications made to a vessel or when new equipment is added or replaced. The U.S. Coast Guard defines vessel stability as “the ability of a fishing vessel to return to its upright position after being heeled over by any combination of wind, waves, or forces from fishing operations.” If a vessel is “unstable”, it does not have the ability to counter these external forces. It is then susceptible to capsizing. This is of concern when vessel owners purchase new crab pots. There have been many structural improvements to crab pots over the years; they are bigger, stronger, and heavier today than they were 10 years ago. Older pots might have weighed 500 pounds each, but the new larger pots can weigh as much as 700 pounds. And, heavier stronger pots change the center of gravity on a vessel and attract more ice in harsh conditions.
“The vessel got underway despite warnings and subjected itself to icing on the vessel,” Boone said. “So icing on the deck and on the crab pots themselves likely contributed to a stability problem that, in turn, caused it to capsize and sink. We learned the crew was very fatigued when they left Dutch Harbor the night before the incident,” Boone said. “So the report concludes the crew members were likely sleeping — and perhaps were not on the deck removing the ice, [which] would have prevented the poor stability conditions from occurring.”
The Marine Board of Investigation detailed several safety oversights. Among the report’s conclusions:
• The Destination, when it left port, was overloaded and did not meet minimum stability standards required by federal regulations.
• The captain set out in freezing spray and the crew failed to remove a heavy buildup of ice on the hull and gear.
• A hatch was believed to have been left open, which would have allowed rapid flooding after the boat encountered rough seas.
• The crew was exhausted.
Why didn’t the crew de-ice the vessel to help keep it stable? Boone said the answer is in the fourth line item; the crew was simply exhausted.
Boone also reported that there is a potential for civil penalties against the vessel owner, David Wilson due to the number of mistakes and oversights that contributed to this fatal disaster.
Another growing concern is the commercial fishing industry is the underinsured epidemic. There are no federal laws or guidelines in place that require minimum insurance coverage; the vessel owner determines how much insurance to carry. The Destination families suffered the tremendous loss of loved ones. While no amount of money can bring a loved one back, these families were hit especially hard financially when their claims for damages returned inadequate amounts. Wives, spouses, and children of deceased crewmembers are entitled to claim damages under Federal Maritime Law. Currently, however, family members cannot recover loss of the “love and affection” for a deceased crewmember such as the loss of a son or a daughter.
Investigators have recommended increased outreach efforts to encourage stability training for crewmembers and vessel owners. While the U.S. Coast Guard agrees with this recommendation, they have decided against pursuing new safety regulations that would specify crab pot weights, require vessel owners to maintain records of changes, or create policies that would address crew exhaustion.
“It was the commandant’s position that the existing set of regulations was sufficient to have prevented this casualty,” Boone said. “The missing piece here was compliance with those existing regulations.”