After thump, vessel sank fast

Written by Adam Spencer, The Triplicate February 01, 2012 06:59 am

Chilly ordeal in ocean recounted by hagfish crew

Michael Centner, left, and John Kubicek recount the sinking Monday. Del Norte Triplicate/Bryant Anderson
Michael Centner, left, and John Kubicek recount the sinking Monday. Del Norte Triplicate/Bryant Anderson
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 said.

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 helicopter.

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 open.

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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