ANCHORAGE – In less than 15 minutes, commercial fisherman Robert Jack went from steering a 75-foot boat across the Gulf of Alaska to a terrifying plunge into its icy waters.
Jack was one of four crew members on the Northern Belle, based in Seattle, which was hit by a swell and tipped on its side Tuesday night before sinking 50 miles south of Alaska’s Montague Island, near the mouth of Prince William Sound. He and two other crew members survived.
Jack told Seattle’s KING-TV on Wednesday that the scene was chaotic as the crew fled the boat.
“The throttles wouldn’t shut down,” he said. “We were moving at 7 knots, rolling over on one side. There were lines, there were brailer bags, heavy pieces of steel flying everywhere.”
The cause of the sinking has not been determined, said Coast Guard spokeswoman Sara Francis, who documented the rescue from a C-130 airplane.
The vessel was carrying cargo on its way to Dillingham, a commercial fishing community in Bristol Bay on Alaska’s southwest coast. The Gulf of Alaska can be treacherous, but Francis said conditions that night were not rough.
Jack said the crew had suspicions that their vessel might not have been properly loaded. The skipper, he said, had expressed reservations that there was too much weight in the stern.
On Tuesday night, Jack said, the crew had just finished dinner, and the skipper turned the wheel over to Jack and headed for his cabin.
“All of a sudden, the boat took a very large surge to the starboard side, and panic started to happen,” Jack said.
The captain ran to the engine room as Jack tried to right the vessel.
“I couldn’t recover the ballast on the boat,” Jack said. “It was extremely listing, and it got worse and worse.”
Jack and the other crew members helped each other into survival suits — clumsy, head-to-toe outfits of bright orange — and fastened the zippers to make the suits watertight.
“At this time, less than three minutes had passed, and the boat was almost up vertical, starboard down, port up, straight up and down,” he said.
They put a life raft over the side but the angle of the boat kept them from getting it untied. Jack jumped in and tore his survival suit on a piece of metal. He was plunged under water.
When he came up for air, he spotted the captain entering the water but lost sight of him in the waves.
Jack swam for about an hour and finally spotted a bundle of wood that had been part of the cargo. He climbed on and blew a whistle to get the attention of the only woman on board, a deck hand he referred to as Nicole.
“I managed to get Nicole over, pull her up, partially out of the water,” he said.
The two rode the wood bundle until rescuers arrived.
A C-130 airplane from the Coast Guard reached the scene in a little more than an hour from Kodiak.
“The first thing we saw was a debris field,” Francis said.
Rescuers spotted the crew members on another pass: two on the wood debris and two in the water, three of whom were waving. The airplane marked the area with smoke flares and dropped life rafts strung together by floating line. A helicopter then dropped a rescue swimmer, who helped hoist crew members into a basket.
The man who died showed no vital signs, while the three survivors suffered hypothermia.
Dr. Phil Hess at Cordova Community Medical Center said the crewman who died suffered a head trauma while exiting the boat, but that it was unclear if he died from the injury or hypothermia.