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
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,
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.
Reach Adam Spencer at firstname.lastname@example.org