Coast Guard opens hearing into 2019 sinking of crab boat Scandies Rose

The Coast Guard has opened an inquiry into the deadly sinking of the crab boat Scandies Rose in the Gulf of Alaska.

Five of the boat’s seven crew members lost their lives when it overturned in heavy seas and freezing spray near Sutwick Island the night of Dec. 31, 2019.

The Coast Guard’s Marine Board of Investigations is holding a two-week public hearing in Edmonds, Washington, that will include testimony from the vessel’s co-owner, two survivors, former crew and naval architects, The Seattle Times reported. It’s aimed at finding a probable cause of the sinking, as well as recommendations for improving safety in the Alaska fleet that joins in winter harvests for snow and king crab.

Related: Settlement in deadly crab boat sinking calls for over $9M

The inquiry opened Monday with the playing of a mayday call issued from the boat through a buzz of airwave static: "We are rolling over."

The two survivors — Dean Gribble Jr., of Edmonds, and Jon Lawler, of Anchorage — have previously given harrowing accounts to reporters of scrambling to the wheelhouse, donning survival suits and preparing to abandon the rapidly sinking and severely listing vessel around 10 p.m. They said a big wave knocked them off the boat.

"I was just floating alone in the dark for a half an hour, getting tossed in those waves. … You are so small out there," Gribble told The Seattle Times last fall.

Related: Calls to loved ones reveal rough conditions before deadly crab boat sinking near Alaska

After bobbing in their survival suits, Lawler and Gribble eventually made it to a life raft. But their suits and the raft had no locator beacons. An emergency light in the raft eventually went out, and they feared they would never be found. A swimmer from a Coast Guard helicopter reached them just before dawn.

The Scandies Rose went down as it journeyed from Kodiak in south-central Alaska toward Bering Sea fishing grounds off the Aleutian Islands. Among the issues targeted by the investigation are regulations related to how boats are loaded and the heavy, freezing spray, which can cause ice to build up on crab pots or hulls, making a boat more likely to capsize.

Dan Mattsen, a co-owner of the Scandies Rose, testified Monday that the regulations are "totally unrealistic" because they assume a much lower buildup of ice than often occurs in the winter waters off Alaska. Mattsen was on a different crab boat when the Scandies Rose sank.

The investigators will also look for mechanical or other problems the vessel may have experienced. One issue scrutinized during Monday’s hearing involved leaks in the area of a discard chute on the vessel. The leaks caused trouble in 2018 that prompted a patch. Contract welders in Seattle performed another repair in 2019. But the leaks persisted as the crew in Kodiak prepared for the 2020 season.

Scandies Rose skipper and part owner Gary Cobban Jr., who died in the sinking, wrote in one text message displayed during the hearing: "I thought this has been repaired in shipyard." He hired a maritime welding company in Kodiak to do yet more repairs before the boat headed for the Bering Sea.

More than 70 crab-boat crew members died in the 1990s, according to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, before the Coast Guard increased oversight of loading heavy steel-framed crab pots and a change in the harvest system eased the pressure on crews to work through bad weather.

The Scandies Rose was the second fatal crab boat sinking in the fishery since 2006. Six crew members were killed when the Seattle-based Destination went down in February 2017.

In November, owners of the Scandies Rose reached a settlement of more than $9 million with the two surviving crew and families of four of the men who died. Those four were Cobban’s son David, 30, of Kodiak; Brock Rainey, 47, of Kellogg, Idaho; Art Ganacias, 50, the boat’s engineer, who had lived in the Puget Sound area and in Sand Point, Alaska; and Seth "Sorin" Rousseau-Gano, 31, of Silverdale, Washington.