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Three Months After Disappearance Of F/V Destination, Search For Answers Continues

May 12, 2017

The crew of the F/V Polar Sea beats ice off their vessel on Feb. 11, the same day the F/V Destination went missing. The two crab boats were fishing in the same area near St. George Island.
Credit Daher Jorge

Three months ago, a crab boat went missing in the Bering Sea with no mayday signal. Three days after that, responders called off their unsuccessful search.

Six fishermen died. A vessel was lost. All just a few miles offshore.

The search for answers is still underway: What happened to the F/V Destination?

It’s a Friday night, and the Norwegian Rat Saloon is packed.

The Rat is a notorious favorite of fishermen looking to unwind in Unalaska. But tonight, the mood at the bar is a little bit different. The Rat is hosting a memorial service for the lost crew of the Destination.

“If I could get everyone to be completely silent for a moment and respect the time these guys put into the Bering Sea," says emcee and crabber Casey McManus. 

McManus settles the crowd down, so the bell-ringing can begin.

It’s a tradition: When you lose a fisherman, you ring a bell in his honor.

"The first one is going to be Captain Jeff Hathaway," says McManus. He reads the rest of the names in between tolls of the bell. "Larry O’Grady … Charles Glenn Jones … Raymond J. Vincler … Kai Hamik … and Darrik Seibold.”

The men disappeared Feb. 11, while fishing for snow crab a few miles from St. George Island. A three-day search turned up nothing more than a floating tangle of the boat’s debris.

For members of the fishing industry, the loss of the Destination has been devastating its own right and for the difficult memories it recalls.

Now mayor of Unalaska, Frank Kelty managed a seafood company in late 1970s -- the heyday of Bering Sea crab fishing.

“Every year, there’d be some kind of a tragedy,” says Kelty.

Once, a friend of Kelty’s broke his neck onboard when a wave took out the wheelhouse. Another time, six of his friends died the first day of the season after their boat rolled, loaded with heavy crab pots.

“I don’t ever want to have to go through a deal like that again," he says.

The situation got worse after the crash of red king crab in 1981. In five years, the fleet went from harvesting 84 metric tons to eight. 

But there was still one quota for the entire fishery, and Kelty says that made catching crab a race.

“The Wild West atmosphere was fully functioning," he says.

Crabbers worked nonstop, trying beat the competition. They overloaded their boats, trying to haul as much as possible. And as a result, many of them were killed.

During the 1990s, 75 people died fishing for crab in the Bering Sea -- from capsizings, falls overboard, and accidents on deck.

It had become the deadliest commercial fishery in the country, and Kelty says it was clear something had to change.

“We had to come up with a game plan to address too many vessels chasing too few crab," he says.

That plan was rationalization. A system where each vessel is assigned its own quota, so crabbers don't have to race.

The fleet got smaller, the season got longer, and the culture of crab fishing got a whole lot safer.

Between 2005 and 2016, Scott Wilwert says the fleet suffered just one fatality. He works for the U.S. Coast Guard as Alaska’s fishing vessel safety coordinator.

“We’d been on a really good 12-year stretch with a downward-sloping trend of vessel losses and fatalities and causalities in this industry," says Wilwert.

That good stretch is something to celebrate, he says, but it also makes the news of the Destination that much harder.  

“I was shocked and certainly bothered by the fact that it happened," he says.

But what did happen, exactly? How did the crew vanish so close to shore? And how did the crab fleet go from making enormous strides in safety to suffering its deadliest accident in more than a decade?

To answer those questions, the Coast Guard has assembled a team of its highest-level investigators, including Commander Scott Muller.

“We have little to go on," he says.

Muller mostly investigates accidents in the mid-Atlantic, but he’s been called to Alaska for the first time to lead the Marine Board of Investigation. It only convenes for the worst vessel disasters.

"Like the El Faro. Exxon Valdez. Deepwater Horizon," says Muller.

Does the loss of the Destination belong in the same category as those big incidents?

"Absolutely," he says. 

Muller’s team is retracing the boat’s final movements. They’re interviewing the Destination’s owners in Seattle, Coast Guard officials in Anchorage, and anyone in Unalaska who interacted with the crew at their last port of call.

This summer, they’re even planning to track down the vessel itself.

“We’re working to first identify the location of the wreck and then to survey the vessel using a remote-operated vehicle," says Muller. "Potentially divers.”

In the meantime, investigators are gathering as much information as possible from people like Daher Jorge.

Jorge is captain of the F/V Polar Sea. His crew was also fishing for crab Feb. 11, not far from the Destination.            

“What we think is that they capsized," says Jorge. "It’s devastating.”

Jorge can’t be sure, but he says conditions that day could make any boat roll. There was so much freezing spray, his own vessel was quickly coated in a thick layer of ice.

“The boat was starting to lean forward, so you know it's getting pretty heavy,” he says.

In those conditions, Jorge says things can go south quickly. Even for experienced fishermen. Even for an industry that’s improved so much in safety.

“I don’t even have words for it," says Jorge. "I think it’s a wake-up call for the whole fleet.”

The Coast Guard plans to hold public hearings on the accident and release the findings of its investigation by the one-year anniversary of the Destination’s disappearance.

This story previously misstated the name of Raymond J. Vincler as "Raymond Jay Vincler." The story has been updated with the correct information.