A crab boat that sank in the Bering Sea last winter likely capsized after the vessel became coated in hundreds of thousands of pounds of ice.
That’s the conclusion of a report released last week by federal investigators.
On Feb. 11, 2017, the Destination was pushing through rough, frigid waters a few miles from St. George Island.
Then, in about four minutes, the boat went from carrying 200 crab pots and preparing for opilio season to vanishing without a mayday call.
“Whatever happened happened very, very quickly,” spokesperson Chris O’Neil, of the National Transportation Safety Board, said. “And there’s no one left to tell their story.”
O’Neil said NTSB investigators reviewed the vessel’s mechanical history, pored over weather reports, and interviewed almost 50 people to piece together the probable cause of the accident.
“The captain’s decision to proceed into heavy freezing spray conditions without ensuring the Destination had a margin of stability to withstand that accumulation of ice led to the loss of the vessel,” O’Neil said.
In better conditions, the boat could have carried the 200 crab pots without a problem.
But with gale force winds kicking up freezing spray, the Destination became weighed down by as many as 339,416 pounds of ice.
“If you look at that probable cause, yes, this is a preventable accident,” O’Neil said.
With no survivors to interview, NTSB couldn’t determine why the crew didn’t beat more ice to mitigate that weight — especially a well-respected crew with more than 70 years of collective fishing experience.
“It’s very hard to know the mindset, the decision-making process, and what factors were or were not considered,” O’Neil said. “But certainly, through the evidence that was collected, we recognized the pressures that are associated with the industry.”
Investigators found several signs that the crew was feeling the pressure of time. The vessel had gotten a late start on crab after fishing for cod. Its delivery deadline was looming. And a few weeks earlier, a crew member had texted his father, “Oh my god, I haven’t slept in days.”
The strains of commercial fishing are familiar to Daher Jorge. He’s captain of the F/V Polar Sea, which was fishing for crab in the same area as the Destination the day it went down.
“The whole crew was exhausted,” Jorge said. “I was beating ice with my crew.”
The Polar Sea pulled into port safely after hours spent heaving sledgehammers to break ice. But in an interview weeks later, Jorge said the Destination’s sinking was a wake-up call for the entire fleet.
“It’s devastating,” Jorge said. “They say most accidents happen close to home. He was so close to St. Paul. He was at St. George. He could’ve anchored up there and gotten some ice off the boat. We have no need to rush so much. We’re going to catch the crab, so why are we going to push that hard?”
In a fishery that’s made huge safety strides in the last two decades, U.S. Coast Guard officials say crabbers have taken the sinking to heart.
Almost 50 boats participated in a voluntary safety check last year to review their stability criteria, and there were no fatalities in this winter crab season.
The loss of the Destination marks the fleet’s deadliest accident since 2005.