Lost at Sea: An American Tragedy

Lost at Sea: An American Tragedy

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by Patrick Dillon

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On the morning of February 3, 1983, the Americus and Altair, two state-of-the-art crabbing vessels, idled at the dock in their home port of Anacortes, Washington. On deck, the fourteen crewmen--fathers, sons, brothers and friends who'd known one another all their lives--prepared for the ten-day trip to Dutch Harbor, Alaska. From this rough-and-tumble


On the morning of February 3, 1983, the Americus and Altair, two state-of-the-art crabbing vessels, idled at the dock in their home port of Anacortes, Washington. On deck, the fourteen crewmen--fathers, sons, brothers and friends who'd known one another all their lives--prepared for the ten-day trip to Dutch Harbor, Alaska. From this rough-and-tumble seaport the men would begin a grueling three-month season in one of the nation's most profitable and deadliest occupations--fishing for crab in the notorious Bering Sea. Standing on the Anacortes dock that morning, the families and friends of the crew knew that in the wake of the previous year's multimillion-dollar losses, the pressure for this voyage was unusually intense.

Eleven days later, on Valentine's Day, the overturned hull of the Americus was found drifting in calm seas only twenty-five miles from Dutch Harbor, without a single distress call or trace of its seven-man crew. The Altair, its sister ship, had disappeared altogether; in the desperate search that followed, no evidence of the vessel or its crew would ever be found. The nature of the disaster--fourteen men and two vessels,apparently lost within hours of each other--made it the worst on record in the history of U.S. commercial fishing.

Delving into the mysterious tragedy of the Americus and Altair, acclaimed journalist Patrick Dillon vivifies the eighty-knot winds, subzero temperatures, and mountainous waves commercial fishermen fight daily to make their living, and illustrates the incredible rise of the Pacific Northwest's ocean frontier: from a father-and-son business to a dangerously competitive multibillion-dollar high-tech industry with one of the highest death rates in the nation. Here Dillon explores the lives the disaster left behind in Anacortes: the ambitious young entrepreneur who raised the top-notch fleet in a few short years, the guilt-ridden captains of the surviving sister boats, and the grief-numbed families of the crew. Tracing the two-year investigation launched by the Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board, he brings to life a heated cast of opponents: ingenious scientists, defensive marine architects, blue-chip lawyers and wrangling politicians, all struggling to come to terms with the puzzling death of fourteen men at sea. And finally, in his evocation of one mother's crusade to pass the safety legislation that might save lives, Dillon creates a moving portrait of courage and love.

Editorial Reviews

LA Times Book Review
A gripping account....Lost at Sea is a better book than Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm — even more thrilling because it is more mysterious....Rich, historic and compelling, like the sea itself.
Denver Post
More than just another man-vs.-the-sea story....An engrossing, even-handed look at how greed, negligence, naivete and downright stupidity can lead to tragedy when man and nature collide.
Michael Parfit
Lost at Sea will inevitably be compared to The Perfect Storm....If anything, Lost at Sea is more ambitious. Junger told a simple story of storm, death and rescue; Patrick Dillon wants to follow his tragedy's shadow into the far reaches of consequence.
The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The Wall Street Journal recently noted that last year "commercial fishing lost its place as the most dangerous occupation." If so, part of the reason must be traced back 15 years to February 14, 1983, when 14 men from the town of Anacortes, Washington, were lost in the Bering Sea. Sailing on the Americus and Altair, two of the most high-tech crabbing vessels of the time, and confident of fairly calm waters, they disappeared without even an SOS. Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and columnist Dillon brings his perceptive journalism skills to reconstructing the lives of the fishermen and their families and motivations--from the need to strike out for more dangerous fishing grounds, because those closer to home were depleted, to simple greed. The residents of Anacortes clearly knew the dangers--an obelisk in the harbor is inscribed with 96 names of fishermen lost over the last 50 years, more than three times the number listed on the memorial to casualties of WWII, Korea and Vietnam. Dillon spent time with the families and followed both the subsequent investigation and the efforts to enact and enforce regulations. His prose is more poetic than incisive: At a basketball game at the high school, "the news came in like a draft under the door. When it reached the bleachers, each row stirred in succession, people bent like grass.... They stood, stunned, their faces frozen...trying to conceal their terror." This is a story of individuals, but it is also the story of an old, traditional industry pushed farther and farther offshore by heavy demand from top restaurants paying high prices.
A riveting account of a tragedy that claimed the lives of 14 fishers in the Bering Sea.
San Jose Mercury News
A sensitive memorial to young man killed needlessly in their prime.
Wall Street Journal
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Patrick Dillon explores the disaster with obvious admiration for the men who suffered it and compassion for those they left behind.
USA Today
Dillon artfully chronicles the lives of the lost fisherman and their families.
Kirkus Reviews
A taut, heartbreaking story of fishermen who died at sea, the subsequent mare's nest of an investigation, and congressional maneuverings over maritime safety bills, from Pulitzer-winning journalist Dillon (The Last Best Thing). Fishing and the Pacific Northwest go hand in hand: many boys there are still raised to read the tides, anticipate the mood swings of the weather, and recognize the tonal variations of foghorns. It's a place where fish were once so thick you could harvest them with a pitchfork. The first part of Dillon's book is the story of a fishing company in a small Washington town, its development and the personalities involved, and then the loss of 14 local men as two of its boats capsize in the rude waters of the Bering Sea. Fishing is a death industry, Dillon reminds readers, and decent cash returns invite risk-taking of the most outrageous sort, but these boats were supposedly superstable, and the fishing company had a plum reputation as a safety-conscious outfit. Part two shifts into investigative-journalist mode as Dillon reports on the inquiry into the loss of the two boats, the toll it took on the families, and the tortured permutations the truth took as it made its way to the surface. The circumstances combine with Dillon's deadpan reportorial style to make the death of the 14 men generate a field of gloom and sadness that is painful to witness. And irritation is added to the pall in part three, as Dillon recounts the families' efforts to get legislation passed to insure greater safety requirements for fishing vessels, over the vested interests of politicians, lawyers, and insurance companies.

Dillon's fine book tells us its the same as it ever was:men at sea equals men at supreme risk.

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A blip appeared on the green radar screen in the wheelhouse of the Neptune Jade, a 750-foot Singapore-registered freighter en route to the Orient. It was 12:15 P.M. on Monday, February 14, and the radar indicated the source to be located about twenty-five nautical miles northwest of Priest Rock and Dutch Harbor. Normal enough in this sea-lane, the vessel's captain noted. Except that the blip was not moving. The Neptune Jade was closing on the position, 24 nautical miles away.

The helmsman switched to a general radio frequency to call the vessel. If assistance was needed, they'd relay a call back to Dutch Harbor. There was no answer. The helmsman set his course directly toward the position of what might be a ship in distress. Since weather reports indicated a storm descending on the area, any broken-down vessel caught in open water would be in peril.

Three hours later, a crew member in the wheelhouse spotted an overturned vessel. The Neptune Jade's skipper took charge, guiding the cumbersome merchant ship within thirty yards--as close as he dared in a sea building with increasing winds--then circling. The hull appeared to be about eighty feet long. A red stripe ran horizontally along the bottom. The rest of the hull was blue. Curiously, there was no indication that the hull itself had been damaged. Aware that the Neptune Jade was too large to safely maneuver alongside, the captain circled again, widening the arc, and ordered his crew to look for survivors, or bodies, or debris. None was spotted.

The captain circled a third time, making an even wider arc. Finding nothing, he grabbed the radio and dialed the Coast Guard emergency channel and described what he and his crew were seeing. There was no reply. He switched radio frequencies, sending out a widespread alert to anyone within range. The captain was following an unwritten "good Samaritan" code at sea, which, because of distances and slow travel time, asked as many vessels within range of a distress signal to converge on the position to look for survivors.

The freighter Aleutian Developer was the first vessel to pick up the call, but it was running six hundred miles to the southwest. Over his own radio, the ship's captain relayed the Neptune Jade's alarm and the reported position of the overturned hull to the U.S. Coast Guard Communication Station in Kodiak: latitude 54 degrees 19.6 minutes north, longitude 166 degrees 54 minutes west. The time was 2:40 P.M.

The Kodiak "Comstay," the oldest facility of its kind in the U.S., was responsible for tracking the comings and goings of hundreds of vessels a week along six thousand miles of crescent coastline from the Canadian border in the southeast to Attu Island at the far western tip of the Aleutians and the Russian border. Seventy officers and enlisted personnel were stationed there in 1983, at least twelve on watch at all times, monitoring dozens of radio channels in soundproof cubicles. They listened for suspicious radio traffic that might expose the positions of possible drug traffickers; they listened for trespassing foreign fishing vessels; they listened for weather reports and bits of marine information they might pass along; they listened for calls for assistance, often dispensing advice, and they acted as 911 operators when situations arose. Nearly nine hundred thousand square miles of open water fell within the station's watch, nearly twice as much as the entire land mass of the continental U.S. Add in tens of thousands of islands within the two-hundred-mile U.S. coastal boundary, and the Coast Guard station's responsibility compared to watching over a small galaxy.

Gary Howell, the skipper of the fishing vessel Alaska Invader, overheard the Aleutian Developer's radio relay. He checked his position: about fifty miles to the southwest of the overturned hull, or more than four hours away. But there was no other radio traffic from vessels small and maneuverable enough to come alongside for a possible rescue. Howell swung the Alaska Invader north, then radioed a sister vessel, the Pacific Invader, which he could see on the horizon. Together, they headed full speed for the location.

Hearing that the Coast Guard Comstay had received his relayed message and that the Alaska Invader and Pacific Invader were on the way, the captain of the Neptune Jade circled one last time, still finding nothing in the water. Then he made a decision that could later be open to question. After reporting once again the position of the hull and that it appeared to be drifting slowly south-southwest, he resumed his route to the Orient, leaving the overturned hull behind. He had been on the scene for just over thirty minutes.

About forty-five minutes later the merchant vessel Ocean Brother, en route to Japan, called the Coast Guard Communication Station in Honolulu. It, too, reported an overturned hull: latitude 54 degrees 17 minutes north, longitude 166 degrees 58 minutes west. That position was about 3.5 nautical miles southwest of the first sighting. It would have been unlikely for a large hull to have drifted that far in forty-five minutes, but not impossible. The variables would include the current, the direction and velocity of the wind, how much of the vessel was riding out of the water. The latest sighting was relayed to Kodiak Comstay, which sent the message along simultaneously to the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station just down the road on Kodiak Island and to the Coast Guard North Pacific Search and Rescue Coordinator in Juneau.

At 3:45 P.M., almost two hours after the first reported sighting by the Neptune Jade, the Coast Guard rescue coordinator in Juneau transmitted an urgent priority call on the marine weather-advisory station:

A fishing vessel has been reported overturned in position 54-19.6 N, 166-54 W. Vessel description: eighty feet, with blue hull, red below waterline. The vessel Neptune Jade is on scene. It is unknown the name of the fishing vessel or persons on board. Vessels with any additional information and any vessels in vicinity are requested to keep a sharp lookout, assist if possible, and advise Coast Guard Juneau or the nearest Coast Guard station.

This report was one of several mistakes the Coast Guard made that morning. The first was not verifying the initial position that had been relayed from the Neptune Jade to a vessel six hundred miles away. The second was not considering the more-than-3.5-mile discrepancy between the two sightings forty-five minutes apart. The third was in transmitting a priority call giving the position of the first sighting, not the latest, by the Ocean Brother, which still had the hull in sight. Finally, no consideration was given to the possibility that the sightings might be of two separate hulls. Meanwhile, the Ocean Brother circled about half a mile from the overturned vessel and, finding no survivors or bodies, resumed its course eastward. Contrary to the Coast Guard advisory, there were now no vessels tracking the overturned hull.

There were also no Coast Guard cutters within five hundred miles of the position. Around 4:00 P.M., the Coast Guard launched a C-130 four-engine search plane from Kodiak. Flying west into the approaching darkness, the propeller-driven C-130 Hercules was designed for stability in foul weather, not speed. It would take the plane nearly three hours to reach the latest location given for the overturned hull.

At 6:00 P.M. on the same day, the crews of the Alyeska and Alliance had just finished transferring fuel to the Sea Alaska processor and had loaded all but the last few pots. Brian Melvin and Glenn Treadwell were standing together in the wheelhouse of the Alliance drinking coffee when suddenly the Coast Guard's "Urgent Marine Information Broadcast" interrupted the normal hourly weather report over the radio receiver.

The word around the dock was that the hull in question was probably one that had burned a week before out near Akutan Island, seventy-five miles to the northeast. There had been several sightings, and the charred hull had been reported drifting south-southwest toward Unalaska Island, the home of Dutch Harbor. Melvin and Treadwell reminded themselves of this and noted that the bulletin they had just heard reported the overturned hull to be about eighty feet--much smaller than any of the A-boats.

Around 7:00 P.M. Gary Howell checked in with the Coast Guard over the radio. The Alaska Invader had reached the Coast Guard's reported position of the overturned hull and found nothing in the dark. Two three-hundred-foot Soviet fish-processing vessels, the Svetlaya and the Turkul, were about thirty miles north of Dutch Harbor when they overheard Howell's radio call. Both Soviet ships headed for the reported position of the wreckage.

At 8:00 P.M. Melvin gave orders for the Alyeska to cast off from Dutch Harbor. Treadwell cast off ten minutes behind him. When the Alliance cleared Priest Rock and made the turn north, Treadwell called Melvin on the radio. They agreed, as a matter of professional seamanship, to alter their courses slightly to the north-northwest and run near the position the Coast Guard had given for the overturned hull.

The Svetlaya arrived at the given coordinates around 8:30 P.M. and the Turkul about ninety minutes later. Both Russian ships began circling, probing the dark with their searchlights, but they reflected only chromium-colored foam off empty waves.

The Alyeska and Alliance arrived at the position nearly two hours later and sighted the two Russian vessels--huge, government-backed, highly efficient floating factories despised by most of the American fleet. Without contacting them, Treadwell and Melvin decided to run north-northwest on parallel courses, five miles apart, relying on their radar to do the searching. For two hours, in worsening weather, they combed the sea; between the two boats they covered approximately twenty square miles. Still, they found nothing. They called the Sea Alaska dock in Dutch Harbor to report that they were resuming their courses to the Pribilofs before the storm overtook them, in order to keep their rendezvous with the Americus and Altair.

Loni Sullivan, the acting chief of police in Dutch Harbor, heard the urgent Coast Guard broadcast at home Monday night. Despite the port's strategic and economic importance to the entire North Pacific, the Coast Guard budget did not allow for a permanent presence. So Sullivan acted in loco parentis. He called the Coast Guard Rescue Coordination Center in Juneau. Since the position of the overturned hull was reported as only twenty-five miles from Dutch Harbor, he would organize a rescue operation, just in case this was not the same vessel that had burned near Akutan Island. If it was yet another capsized vessel, the crew could possibly be trapped inside, perhaps sustained by an air pocket. More than once, survivors had been pulled from overturned vessels hours after they'd capsized.

Sullivan spotted the hundred-foot crabber Golden Pisces still at its dock. Buster McNabb, the owner and an old friend of Sullivan's, agreed to lend his red-hulled boat for a rescue operation and set about gathering his crew. In the meantime, Sullivan called Bill Evans, a commercial diver. If this was a newly capsized boat, Sullivan would send the diver under the hull to rap on the wheelhouse where survivors were most likely to be trapped. If there was a reply, they'd use an oxyacetylene torch to cut an escape hole in the hull. If not, they'd cut a hole to retrieve what bodies they could.

At 4:25 A.M. on Tuesday, February 15, the processor Svetlaya, still searching for victims, nearly collided with the overturned hull. The captain conferred on the radio with the captain of the Turkul, and it was agreed that the Svetlaya would lay alongside while the Turkul kept circling, looking for survivors. One of the Turkul's crew thought he glimpsed a body. But he lost sight of it.

Four hours later, at 8:25 A.M., Loni Sullivan and Buster McNabb on the Golden Pisces reached the location radioed by the Svetlaya. The Coast Guard C-130 four-engine search plane that had been dispatched from Kodiak flew overhead. The wind was picking up out of the northeast. The seas were showing frothy peaks.

The new location was marked: latitude 54 degrees 17 minutes north, longitude 167 degrees 22 minutes west. The hull was now drifting west-northwest, just a few miles from the position the Ocean Brother had given.

The Golden Pisces circled, and as it did, Buster McNabb stared in disbelief at the hull. It looked much longer than eighty feet. It had new rubber bumpers. The hull was blue with a red boot stripe. There was a crab-pot float drifting nearby, and it bore the Alaska Department of Fish and Game registration No. 33598. He seized the radio and gave the numbers. "Call Fish and Game, and ID the boat they come from."

The wind had picked up velocity out of the north-northeast. The waves were consistently reaching twelve to fifteen feet now and pummeling the hull. One of the divers volunteered to go over the side, but both Sullivan and McNabb said it was too dangerous. Half an hour went by. They could only keep circling, watching helplessly while the seas continued to build.

"Suddenly, it just started getting rougher and rougher. People were laying in the wheelhouse puking," recalled Steve Beard, a deckhand making his first voyage on the Golden Pisces. "I remember seeing the hull and then you didn't because the swells were so high."

The men watched as one large wave rose higher than the others and slammed into the hull, dumping hundreds of tons of water on the stern and causing it to drop under the impact. The bow rose above the water, and as it did, McNabb saw an American flag flashing across the side. There was only one boat with that distinctive insignia. Loni Sullivan recognized it too. They radioed the terminal in Dutch Harbor to relay what they had seen.

Ten hours after Brian Melvin had abandoned his search for the overturned vessel, he was halfway to the Pribilofs, relaxing in the wheelhouse of the Alyeska, drinking coffee, listening to radio chatter among boats just to pass the time. Every boat had a time to check in with the cannery shift foreman in Dutch Harbor to exchange and update information. Melvin's schedule called for him to check in at noon, in two more hours. But as he listened, the familiar voice of Chuck Beach, the superintendent of the Sea Alaska processor, broke in over the radio: "Which one of the A-boats is out?" he asked.

"They are all out," Melvin heard another voice answer, one he didn't recognize.

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Lost at Sea 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
Lost At Sea is a book that you can't put down. Patrick Dillon makes the book seem like you were right there when the Americus and the Altair went down. I would reccomend this book to anyone!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Dillion gives a realistic description of the lives and tragedies of the men and families involved in the disappearence of the Americus and Altair. Illustrating how the fishing industry is not just a means of income but a source of family and community pride. Where the loss of life is not viewed as romantic or just a statistic, but a fact that happens everyday.