On June 28, 2018, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) produced the final report on the capsize and sinking of F/V Destination, the crab vessel that disappeared last winter northwest of St. George Island in the Bering Sea, killing all six crew aboard. Last July, two NOAA vessels — Oscar Dyson and Fairweather — assisted the U.S. Coast Guard during the search for the missing boat. Dyson was able to narrow the search field allowing Fairweather to ultimately pinpoint the crabber in 256 feet of water using the ship’s advanced multibeam sonar.
Destination sank on February 11, 2017. There was no mayday call or any emergency beacon that would have signaled a problem on board. After the ship was located, a U.S. Coast Guard ROV was deployed to take pictures for an inquest following the accident.
For the report, the NTSB interviewed a number of captains who were operating in the area at the time. Forecast weather conditions for the night in question suggested that strong northeast winds, low temperatures, and building seas would create dangerous freezing spray that would accumulate on decks during routine crabbing operations. Most captains in the area felt compelled to adjust their course of business, but there was no such adjustment on Destination. According to the report, several other boats had accumulated significant amounts of ice, even at very slow speeds (1-2 knots), and one, the captain of F/V Silver Spray, decided that the forecast warranted holing up at St. George Island until conditions improved.
Another vessel in the area, F/V Polar Sea stopped four times for deicing efforts and indicated to investigators that ice accumulation levels were an “eight” (on a scale of 10). Ice accumulation during the last few hours that Destination remained buoyant were judged to be as high as 1.6 inches of buildup per hour. Newfoundland’s Memorial University modeled the day’s sea and weather data to gauge the probable ice buildup on Destination that resulted in her capsize and disappearance. The university’s model suggests that in such conditions roughly 5,951 pounds of ice could have built up every 15 minutes.
Adding to the issues of the weight of ice, another captain in the report remarked that, in his opinion, Destination was carrying too many pots for the conditions and that the boat looked overburdened. Further to that, the U.S. Coast Guard’s own Marine Safety Center (MSC) conducted a stability analysis of the boat using CAD-generated models from the boat’s 1992 rebuild, which indicated a number of other possible contributing factors in the sinking.
The first was that the vessel’s stability instructions booklet listed crab pots weighing 700 pounds each, but when the Coast Guard recovered a pot from the shipwreck, the pot weighed an additional 140 pounds. The unaccounted-for weight of all 200 pots exceeded the vessel’s stability recommendation by 28,000 pounds. Specifications also limited the weight of bait held on board to just over 6,000 pounds, but shore receipts point to bait amounting to nearly 20,000 pounds when the vessel first departed Dutch Harbor. And lastly, the ship itself had been modified to include a steel plate added to the bulwark and a bulbous bow as well as other modifications that totaled about 3,366 pounds. The MSC stated: “Vessels have negative stability when their righting arm is less than zero ... with 4 inches of ice, the Destination would have had negative stability at a heel angle of 18 degrees, and with 7 inches of ice negative stability at a heel angle of only 8 degrees.”
In all, and not including the substantial weight of ice accumulating on deck, the boat itself was laden with over 45,000 pounds beyond the boat’s specified stability load.
Quoting the NTSB report:
“The MSC concluded that the vessel likely capsized in the large seas and winds as it came out of the lee of St. George Island due to prolonged icing conditions adding weight high on the vessel, leaving it with a lower freeboard and a decreased righting arm (lower stability). The AIS position data that indicated a rapid heading change as the vessel left the island’s lee support this capsizing scenario.”
Although the NTSB is an investigative body only and does not produce reports for “the purpose of determining the rights or liabilities of any person,” they did conclude with the following:
“The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of the capsizing and sinking of the fishing vessel Destination was the captain’s decision to proceed during heavy freezing spray conditions without ensuring the vessel had a margin of stability to withstand an accumulation of ice or without taking sufficient mitigating action to avoid or limit the effects of icing.”