Adam Spencer, The Triplicate

Chilly ordeal in ocean recounted by hagfish crew

It all started with a thump.

The three crew members of the West Wind, a local fishing vessel that sunk Friday, heard the noise, but it wasn't loud enough to cause alarm.

Once they were alarmed, the boat sank in less than five minutes, the crew said.

After the noise, skipper Michael Centner took the boat out of gear

to investigate the source, but everything seemed fine. They proceeded

another hundred yards toward their hagfish traps before the 46-foot

vessel started listing hard toward the starboard side.

Deckhand Tony Wells opened the rear hatch in front of the fuel

tanks, finding it already half-full of water, Centner said. Wells yelled

"We're sinking!" putting the crew in full-blown survival mode, Centner


Centner began sending mayday signals while Wells and deckhand John

Kubicek scrambled to put on their survival suits, waterproof suits used

to prevent hypothermia in emergency situations - like this.

The boat was sinking fast. The lights on the radio and GPS were

flickering, and Centner never heard a reply to his distress signal, he

said. He could only hope someone heard the signal.

Coast Guard Air Station Humboldt Bay said they received a garbled mayday signal at 2:46 p.m. Friday.

After replaying the transmission multiple times, Coast Guard radio

operators Brian Hampton and Zane Steves were able to decipher the

latitude coordinate, but not the longitude.

Using the latitude coordinate and the distance that the mayday

signal travelled to two different communication towers, the Coast Guard

was able to narrow the possible location and sent a search and rescue


On the West Wind, deckhand Wells attempted to tie the inflatable

life raft container to the top of the boat (the emergency raft container

is supposed to open and start inflating when a cord is pulled from the

weight of a sinking ship).

Wells and Kubicek were in the water before attaching the raft container.

Centner tried to put on his survival suit while the boat was on its

side. He was next to the windows with one leg in the suit, when a "wall

of water took me right off and threw me in the ocean," Centner said.

Centner found himself surrounded by ropes and in a state of panic.

He could hardly breathe in the cold water, but he knew he had to get out

of the ropes that were tied to the quickly dropping boat.

The floating rope was hard to escape, and once he thought he was

clear he noticed he still had several coils around his leg. Just as

Centner got untangled, he said he saw the ropes dissappear, pulled down

with the sinking ship and nearly pulling him down with it.

He swam about 50 yards over to Kubicek and Wells, who were grasping

the floating life raft container, which they still had not been able to


The three men held onto each other in the cold water, with the

floating container in the middle for about a half-hour to 45 minutes.

"I'm getting a land job," Centner remembers Wells saying. Wells had

been in two other sinkings, including the Alaska Ranger, where 42 men

were rescued but five died.

Then, Kubicek had an idea.

"Do you have your knife?" Kubicek asked Centner.

Centner dug a blade out of his pocket and started to cut the straps

around the raft container. A wave hit him after cutting one strap, and

he said that he thought to himself, "hold onto that knife."

"But you're so cold you don't even know if you're holding it," he

said, adding he didn't even realize he cut his hand in the process until

hours later.

After the straps were cut, Kubicek said he was able to get the raft

container to open by placing his feet on it and tugging the pull cord

as hard as he could.

The raft inflated and Kubicek and Wells hopped in quick "like a

couple of seals," Centner said. Without a survival suit, Centner was

half paralyzed from the cold water and took a few minutes to climb into

the raft, he said.

Kubicek and Wells started firing off the emergency equipment in the

raft, flares and smoke signals, to garner attention. They could see

nothing but water and an occasional glimpse of the Klamath mountains,

Kubicek said.

They heard the helicopter come close and leave a couple times

before it was in sight. Kubicek and Wells argued over whether it was a

bird or a helicopter.

"You're the one that lost your glasses," Kubicek said he remembers telling Wells, insisting he saw a helicopter.

Sure enough, the Coast Guard chopper located the group in a scene that seemed out of the movies, Kubicek and Centner said.

Rescue swimmer Petty Officer Dave Foreman jumped from the chopper

and swam over to the raft. Centner, already living a "cold nightmare,"

said the worst part was when he was told he had to get back in the water

to swim over to the rescue basket.

"But it's the best feeling once you make it inside that

helicopter," he said. "I was cold, but at least I was on something that

was not floating."

The three men were transported to Crescent City's airport, where

they took an ambulance to Sutter Coast Hospital. All of them were

released within one to two hours.

The West Wind belonged to the owners of Top Blue Marine, a fish

distributor that recently moved into the old Surfside Grill and Brewery

building on Front Street. The firm's CEO, Marcos Won, could not be

reached for comment Monday.

Centner and his crew had transported the boat from Newport, Ore.,

to Crescent City, where they fixed it up, prompting a surveyor to say

the boat was "solid," Centner said. This was only the boat's third trip

out in Crescent City.

A member of the Coast Guard told the crew a large piece of wood debris was seen near the site of the sinking.

"I think it must have knocked our rudder off, because it had to be a

big hole," Centner said. "Because we went down way too fast."

The crew was found 11 miles off the coast of Crescent City, but the

boat sunk 20 miles off the coast, in 500-foot-deep water where the

hagfish they were catching like to hang out.

On Monday, Centner was in the harbor parking lot, trying different

keys to open his truck. His main set went down with the boat, along with

the crew's cell phones and wallets.

The crew also lost hundreds of dollars in tools and equipment.

In the future, Centner plans to stress safety and make sure

necessary emergency gear is close by. The coldwater training course that

Centner's crew took last fall helped out.

"When something happens, don't do circles," he remembers local

Coast Guard Auxiliary instructor Beverly Noll said at the class. "You

don't have a minute to run circles."

After experiencing the sinking of the West Wind in just three to four minutes, he fully understands what she meant.

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