Fisherman recounts ‘pieces of steel flying everywhere’ as boat sinks in frigid Alaska waters

By Dan Joling, AP
Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Fisherman recounts rescue as boat sinks off Alaska

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — A commercial fisherman said Wednesday that his skipper’s decision to make a last-second mayday call before their boat sank likely saved the lives of his crew, but may have cost him his.

Captain Robert Royer suffered a head injury while leaving the 75-foot Northern Belle on Tuesday as it turned on its side on the Gulf of Alaska 50 miles south of Montague Island.

Robert Jack, 52, said the vessel’s Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon did not activate. Royer, rather than immediately jumping ship with the others, stayed in the wheelhouse to make a frantic mayday call and give their position to the Coast Guard.

“There’s only two ways we could have got saved: the EPIRB or the mayday call, and our captain made it in there and sacrificed himself, I believe, to make a mayday call for his crew,” Jack said.

Jack and two other crew members, Nicole Esau, 36, of Ketchikan, Alaska, and Todd Knivila, 48, of Seattle, spent more than three hours in the frigid water but were hoisted to safety by a Coast Guard helicopter. Royer showed no vital signs when he was picked up.

The cause of the sinking has not been determined, said Coast Guard spokeswoman Sara Francis, who documented the rescue from a C-130 rescue airplane. Jack speculated the cause was linked to overloading.

Before fishing for herring at Togiak, the crew planned a stop in Dillingham in Bristol Bay to deliver construction supplies. Earlier in the day, the vessel had listed to the other side and Royer pumped water to correct the problem.

“I don’t know what caused it, other than we were overloaded and it just couldn’t take it,” Jack said. “Maybe the deck cracked.”

Jack said the crew had finished dinner and he had started his shift at the wheel when danger came without warning.

“I looked out through the front, and I saw that we were bow up, stern down, and we were listing drastically to the starboard side,” he said.

He yelled to the skipper, who bolted down to the engine room to see if flooding was causing the instability. Jack tried to right the vessel but the listing increased.

Outside the wheelhouse, Jack ordered Esau and Knivila to don survival suits — clumsy, head-to-toe outfits of bright orange. They helped each other fasten zippers to make the suits watertight.

In less than three minutes, Jack said, the boat was almost vertical, starboard down, port up. Royer, putting on his own survival suit, re-entered the wheelhouse to make the mayday call.

The crew put a life raft over the side but the angle of the boat kept them from getting it untied. The crew members separated, with Esau and Knivila staying on the high side.

Jack jumped in from the low side, hoping to free the life boat, but tore his survival suit on a piece of metal. He plunged beneath the water, momentarily trapped by the boat’s crane.

He said he surfaced long enough to see Royer jump. Another crew member saw Royer get hit in the head by a dewaterer, a heavy metal box.

Jack climbed onto floating bundled lumber that had been part of the cargo and blew the whistle attached to his survival suit when he saw Esau and Knivila 500 feet away. Esau swam to the 12-by-6-foot platform and was pulled up.

Knivila, exhausted, stopped about 75 feet away, he said.

A Coast Guard C-130 airplane from Kodiak reached the scene a little more than an hour after the mayday call. The crew dropped rafts, and Knivila was able to climb in.

The crew members were hoisted into a rescue basket from a helicopter that arrived 45 minutes later. The three survivors suffered hypothermia.

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