Loss of a rudder post from the fishing vessel Alaska Ranger lead to progressive flooding exacerbated by poor watertight integrity and a unexpected sternwards movement led to the loss of five of her 47 crew, and would probably have taken more if not for the rescue efforts of the US Coast Guard and the crew of a nearby ship, the Alaska Warrior, and the vessel itself. Most of those on board were asleep at the time of the accident.
The US NTSB has issued its final report on the sinking and in part is critical of conservation laws that prohibit shipowners from replacing unsafe vessels working in some of the harshest working conditions in the world.
Alaska Ranger was built in 1972 as an offshore support vessel and extensively converted from the main deck up into a fishing processing and freezing vessel between 1987 and 1989 to join what is known as the ‘head and gut fleet’ to work the area around the Aleutian islands.
Amendment 80 – Hazardous To Safety
Under conservation laws introduced in the 1970s and 1980s vessels exploiting certain types of fish, termed groundfish, require to be licensed by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. The license for these so-called ‘Amendment 80’ vessels cannot be transferred to another vessel unless the original vessel has sunk, been declared a total loss or been declared permanently ineligible to receive a fishery endorsement.
The result has been an ageing fleet of 21 ‘Amendment 80’ vessels with an average age of 30.38 years whose owners cannot replace them unless they sink.
Given fishing casualty statistics such a prohibition is unwise. Says the NTSB report: “Commercial fishing is regarded as one of the most dangerous professions in the world. The International Labour Organization estimates that 24,000 fatalities occur per year in fisheries, and that in the United States in 1996, the death rate in fisheries was over 40 times the national average.
“The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that for 2007, fishermen and related fishing workers had the highest fatality rate in the country — 111.8 deaths per 100,000 workers.
“A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control found that during the period 2000–2006, the states of California, Oregon, and Washington combined had an average annual commercial fishing fatality rate of 238 deaths per 100,000 fishermen—approximately double the national average.
“In 2008, the Coast Guard published an analysis of fishing vessel accidents that occurred in the United States between 1992 and 2007.66 Altogether, 1,903 vessels were lost, with 934 fatalities. Vessel flooding accounted for 36 percent of the losses, fires were the second leading cause of loss, and hull or equipment failures accounted for 67 percent of the floodings. Fifty-seven percent of the losses occurred in Coast Guard District 17 (Alaska). The study found that most vessel losses and crewmember deaths were not directly related to fishing operations but to other activities, such as traveling to or from port. The study’s executive summary stated: “Most fishermen are dying because their vessel sank and they entered the water…
“…the commercial fishing vessel industry is one of the highest risk industries in the world and has the poorest safety record of any industry in the United States.”
With the remains of Alaska Ranger unreachable for examination at some 2,000 metres deep exactly what caused her loss of rudder may never be known. The company and others believed that she had been hardened for, and classed for, operations in ice and had operated in ice for 18 years, in part because of what appeared to be a protective metal plate encircling the hull where such protection would be expected. In fact, the ‘protection’ was merely the sheer-strake which the added weight of the conversion had put at the waterline.
Dooming Alaska Ranger
That increase in draught also put the top of the rudder truck, into which the stock fitted, below the waterline and there was leaking around the rudders before the vessel sank. Loss of a rudder could have resulted in the rudder room filling with water within five minutes through the rudder trunk,which effectively became a hole in the hull some 23cm wide.
Once water filled the rudder room the vessel’s immediate fate rested on water-tight integrity. Water was seen coming from above the water-tight door of the rudder room as she filled – it had evidently been breached, possibly by pipes through the bulk head. From there two other areas became especially critical – the factory deck and the engine room.
Later modelling showed that while Alaska Ranger maintained good stability undamaged in all conditions, once there was damage she would be lost because of the lack of watertight bulkheads on the factory deck and the flooding of the engine room: “The Alaska Ranger ‘could not have survived’ that scenario, according to the model.
“Alaska Ranger was subject to no requirements for watertight compartments or doors,” says the NTSB report.
Once water reached the main switchboard in the engine room the power went out, disabling the hydraulic pumps which controlled the ship’s two reversible pitch propellers. The result was that the propeller pitch was reversed and Alaska Ranger began to make sternway at full speed during the abandon-ship increasing the flooding. This put two of the three deployed liferafts out of reach beyond the bows, the painters on two of liferafts snapped, forcing several members of the crew to abandon ship by jumping into the water.
The reverse-pitch phenomenon had occurred on Alaska Ranger before, during her seatrials in 1988 and again five years prior to the sinking when she ran stern-first into another vessel. At least three other instances have been reported in which failure or non-operation of hydraulic pumps has resulted in controllable-pitch propellers reversing unexpectedly.
Alaska was not required to have an emergency generator that would have allowed the pumps to function.
There was no method of hydraulically locking the propeller blades on the hub once the high-volume pumps failed. An emergency mechanical procedure for setting the propeller blades to forward pitch if the hydraulic pumps failed on Alaska Ranger existed: The vessel is stopped, then the hubs are mechanically locked in full-ahead position. The procedure takes 15 minutes to an hour for a knowledgeable person to complete.
Neither of the two deck officers – master and mate – nor the chief engineer survived so it is not known why the master did not stop the engines. Earlier the master had apparently declined to do so because he wanted to maintain manoeuvrability.
The NTSB Report findings are:
1. The flooding of the Alaska Ranger appears to have begun in the rudder room, likely as the result of the physical loss of a rudder.
2. A lack of internal watertight integrity allowed the progressive flooding that eventually sank the Alaska Ranger.
3. A loss of electrical power caused the pumps that controlled the pitch of the vessel’s propellers to lose hydraulic pressure, which allowed the propeller blades to move to an astern pitch (contrary to the ordered position) and, because the main engines were running, propelled the Alaska Ranger backward.
4. The Alaska Ranger would not have traveled astern if the vessel’s controllable-pitch propeller system had been equipped (as it originally was) with hydraulic pumps driven off the main propulsion shafts.
5. The astern movement of the Alaska Ranger before the sinking caused the vessel to move away from the liferafts and prevented crewmembers from entering the liferafts from the vessel as intended.
6. Slowing or stopping the main engines would have arrested the vessel’s astern motion, which might have slowed the flooding as well as prevented the liferafts from deploying out of reach.
7. There is no evidence that the fishmaster compromised the Alaska Ranger master’s ability to exercise his command authority.
8. Fishing Company of Alaska personnel were under the mistaken impression that the Alaska Ranger had been strengthened for operation in ice.
9. Fishing Company of Alaska failed to ensure that its engineering officers met Coast Guard requirements for licensing and manning, but there is no evidence that the qualifications of the engineering crewmembers played a role in the accident.
10. During the Alaska Ranger’s January 2008 dockside examination, the Coast Guard failed to identify that the vessel’s engineers were not properly certificated.
11. Fishing Company of Alaska failed to effectively implement and enforce its drug and alcohol policy.
12. Under the circumstances of being occupied with rescuing survivors and treating them for hypothermia, it was reasonable that personnel on board the rescue vessels did not conduct postaccident testing for alcohol.
13. Postaccident drug-testing requirements could have been met on board the Alaska Warrior or in Dutch Harbor, but they were not.
14. Although toxicology testing of specimens from the ship’s master, mate, and chief engineer showed no evidence of alcohol or drug use, no conclusions can be reached regarding alcohol or drug use by surviving crewmembers because postaccident testing was not conducted.
15. A communication error delayed the discovery that the fishmaster was missing.
16. The Coast Guard’s search and rescue effort, carried out under adverse weather and sea conditions, was timely and effective and minimized the loss of life in the accident.
17. The Coast Guard’s seasonal basing of a rescue helicopter near the fishing grounds aided the rescue effort.
18. The drydock examination of the Alaska Ranger performed as part of the Alternate Compliance and Safety Agreement program was inadequate because not all hull areas specified in the program guidance were gauged.
19. Although the Coast Guard’s initial implementation of the Alternate Compliance and Safety Agreement program was flawed, the program has provided a higher level of safety for the enrolled commercial fishing industry vessels than existed previously.
20. The Coast Guard’s ability to address safety deficiencies in commercial fishing industry vessels is limited by its lack of statutory inspection authority.
21. By imposing a regulatory bar against replacing Amendment 80 vessels, the regulations that implement the fishery management plan for groundfish of the Bering Sea/Aleutian Island management area negatively affect safety by preventing vessel owners from replacing aging vessels that pose increased operating risks.
The full report on the sinking, together with USCG safety alerts in available here.
Julio Morales, an Alaska Ranger survivor, tells his side