The six-member crew of the Seattle-based crab boat F/V Destination had yet to begin their snow-crab harvest when the vessel disappeared Saturday morning amid chilly winter temperatures in the Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska.
Michael Barcott, an attorney representing the owners of the vessel, said the crew still had all their gear on board, including the steel pots used to trap crab, when something went wrong.
“We can tell you precious little now,” Barcott said Monday. “We don’t want to speculate. … Our thoughts and our prayers are with the (crew’s families). This is a call that no fishing family wants to get.”
The Coast Guard suspended the search for the crew Monday afternoon, according to a news release late Monday.
In a statement late Monday, Barcott said the boat’s owners were grateful to the Coast Guard, good samaritan ships and residents of St. George Island who aided in the search.
“These men were professionals,” he said. “Our hearts are broken for their loved ones who are now left with the certainty of this tragic sinking.”
The missing 98½-foot crab boat sent out an emergency locator-beacon signal around 6:15 a.m. Saturday, Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Brian Dykens said. The beacons are designed to be automatically activated when a vessel goes down, providing a location for searchers.
The beacon went off about two miles northwest of St. George Island in the Pribilofs, a group of four islands about 200 miles north of Unalaska, Alaska.
A Coast Guard search has turned up the Destination’s locator EPIRB — Emergency Position Indication Radio Beacon — and a debris field containing buoys, a life ring and an oil sheen from the boat.
The Bering Sea in the winter can be treacherous, and the temperatures Saturday morning were low enough to generate freezing spray that can coat gear stacked on deck, adding weight and reducing stability. Dykens said the National Weather Service on Saturday had issued warning of conditions that would likely generate heavy freezing spray.
Pat Pletnikoff, the mayor of the town of St. George on St. George Island, said the weather in the area has been unusually cold for the past several weeks, and Saturday brought a series of squalls that, at times, created blizzard conditions.
He said that very strong tides are another hazard in the area where the Destination went missing.
“The west end of the island is known for hellacious tides,” Pletnikoff said. “Those tides can throw you around. A lot of times it doesn’t make a difference how big your vessel is … and everyone uses extreme caution when trying to transit the area.”
Whatever happened to cause the vessel to vanish appeared to happen quickly. There were no reports of any Mayday distress signals radioed by any member of the crew.
Barcott, the attorney, said the Destination is owned by David R. Wilson, a longtime crabber who lives in Washington state. Barcott said the vessel was used as a crabber and also as a tender for other summer fisheries.
According to Coast Guard records, the Destination was built in 1981.
Barcott said the Destination had a “good and experienced crew” and that it “is a mystery as to what may have happened here.”
He said that Wilson has been in contact with the families of the crew members, but that the owner Monday did not yet want to release their names.
However, one of the missing crew has been identified by family members as Larry O’Grady, 55, of Poulsbo. He worked as an engineer aboard the Destination.
“He has been on the boat for over 20 years, and this was his life,” said his niece, Shannon Herdman, of Bremerton.
Herdman said that the family had last heard from O’Grady in a phone call Thursday night while the vessel was in port.
Alaska fisherman Dylan Hatfield said his brother also was aboard the Destination, according to the Alaska Dispatch News. Hatfield did not want to identify his brother or any of the other crew members by name, the newspaper reported.
Hatfield told the Dispatch News he had worked with every member of the six-man crew and all were experienced fishermen.
The Destination is a meticulously maintained “battle ax,” said Hatfield, who worked for six years aboard the Destination, according to the Dispatch News.
Gary Painter, owner of the crab boat Trailblazer, said he has known Wilson, the owner of the Destination, for years. He described him as a good man and veteran operator in the crab fleet.
Painter said that the Trailblazer is now crabbing in the Bering Sea and was more than 50 miles from the Destination when the emergency signal was picked up Saturday.
The Coast Guard is expected to launch an investigation that will attempt to find out what caused the disappearance.
In many past crab-vessel accidents, a loss of vessel stability has been a significant issue. Stability can be greatly affected by what the vessel is carrying, and how that load is distributed.
The Coast Guard conducts voluntary safety checks of the crabbers to look at how many pots they carry, and ensure that they are compliance with stability instructions for their vessels.
Before the start of this year’s harvest, the Coast Guard did not conduct a voluntary compliance check of the Destination, according to Scott Wilwert, the Coast Guard’s District 17 vessel safety coordinator. But the vessel has undergone these Coast Guard checks in years past, and always found to be in compliance, he said.
Crab boats are most susceptible to capsizing when fully loaded with pots stacked on the deck. This is especially true in the winter months when icing conditions may occur, according to a 2010 safety review of the fleet submitted to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council by a then-Coast Guard officer involved in marine safety and a researcher for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
At least eight of 12 vessels lost between 1990 and 1999 were headed to the crab grounds, or returning, in a fully loaded condition, according to the analysis.
Pletnikoff, the St. George mayor, said the island does not have a harbor able to offer shelter to vessels the size of the Destination and other Bering Sea crabbers. He said he would like to see improvements made to accommodate them.
“These guys, you got to hand it to them,” Pletnikoff said. “It’s extremely tough and dangerous work and we wish we could get them out of the weather.”