The six-member crew of the Seattle-based crab boat F/V Destination had yet to begin their snow-crab harvest when the vessel went missing 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 that 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 morning. “We don’t want to speculate. Right now the Coast Guard is still searching. Our thoughts and our prayers are with the (crew’s families). This is a call that no fishing family wants to get.”
The missing 98½ -foot crab boat sent out an emergency locator-beacon signal around 6:15 a.m. Saturday, said Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Brian Dykens. The beacons are designed to be automatically activated when a vessel goes down, providing a location for searchers.
The beacon went off two miles northwest of St. George Island in the Pribilofs, where volunteers are searching the shorelines for signs of the missing vessel.
The Coast Guard reports that the search has included two HC-130 airplanes, two MH-60 Jayhawks, the 378-foot Coast Guard Cutter Morgenthau and two good Samaritan vessels — the Silver Spray and Bering Rose.
The searchers recovered the locator EPIRB — Emergency Position Indication Radio Beacon — and also found a debris field containing buoys, a life ring and an oil sheen
The Bering Sea in the winter can be treacherous, and the temperatures on 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.
Whatever happened to cause the vessel go missing appeared to happen quickly. There were no reports of any Mayday distress signals radioed by any member of the crew.
Barcott 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.”
Barcott said Wilson has been in contact with the families of the crew members, but that the owner on Monday morning 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 when it went missing, 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 missing fishing vessel, according to the Dispatch News.
Pat Pletnikoff, the mayor of the town of St. George on St. George Island, said the weather 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.”
Pletnikoff said that a ground-search crew went out Saturday afternoon and again Sunday to a high cliff area to scout for any signs of the missing vessel on the shoreline. But visibility was hampered by the weather, and the winds have generally blown in a direction that would have pushed debris away from the island.
Pletnikoff said that St. George 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.”
The hazards of the crab harvests have gained notoriety through TV’s “Deadliest Catch,” the reality show that chronicles crew life aboard fishing vessels in the Bering Sea. But the harvest underwent a major change in 2005 as the derby-style fisheries were replaced by a system that allocated shares of harvests among vessels owners. The new system helped to lower the death rates.