When the 110-foot freight vessel Exito sank in the Bering Sea in 2016, two men lost their lives. A number of factors were at play that night including an ill-fitting survival suit and the unseaworthiness of the vessel itself. One of the unexpected revelations of the sinking however was the importance of attitude and will in an emergency, and how those can sometimes determine who lives and who dies when things go bad at sea.
The Exito was a steel 117-foot vessel, built in 1956 and converted to an Alaskan crab fishing boat in the late 1980s. The vessel was retired from fishing in 2004 and in 2012 began hauling freight and fish processing waste for Trident Seafoods in Akutan.
On Dec. 5, 2016, the boat embarked from Akutan bound for Dutch Harbor, 50 miles to the west. On board were the ship’s master and deckhand, and four refrigeration technicians under contract to Trident. The skipper and the deckhand conducted a safety briefing in Akutan, which included verbal instructions on the location and donning of the survival suits, and deployment of the emergency radio locator beacon and the life raft. The contractors did not put on the suits before leaving Akutan, a fact which would have large consequences on the night of the sinking.
The Exito sailed from Akutan to Dutch Harbor without incident, but on arrival in Dutch the skipper and deckhand discovered about two feet of water in a starboard forward void compartment and pumped it out. This space had a history of taking water from an unidentified source, and had been pumped out on several occasions over the previous months.
The next day, one of the contractors flew out, 10,000 pounds of equipment was secured on deck, and the vessel departed Dutch Harbor at 6:50 p.m., bound for Akutan with the three other contractors on board.
After leaving Dutch Harbor, the boat headed northeast and encountered a 30-knot northerly wind and a 10-foot sea on the port bow. A little after 9 p.m., the boat rolled to starboard and maintained a two to three degree list. The skipper ordered the deckhand to inspect the starboard forward void for water, but the space was found dry. A few minutes later the skipper called the owner on his cellphone and told him “something didn’t feel right,” and that he was turning back to Dutch Harbor. The skipper also noticed that some of the equipment pallets on deck had shifted and ordered the deckhand to secure them. The skipper then set the boat on autopilot and went below to start a pump to de-water a starboard ballast tank, in hopes of alleviating the starboard list.
Upon returning to the wheelhouse and finding the starboard side deck awash and the starboard rail underwater, he sounded the general alarm. The deckhand, still securing the loose equipment on deck, scampered back to the wheelhouse along the port side of the deck, which was being swept by seas coming over the starboard rail. The skipper ordered him to don his survival suit.
On hearing the alarm, one of the contractors climbed the stairs from the galley to wheelhouse and was told by the skipper to put on his survival suit, tell the other two contractors to do so also, and to return to the wheelhouse with them for further instruction.
The skipper then made a VHF radio distress call and called the owner again on his cellphone to give him their position and tell him they were abandoning ship. Moments later, at 9:32 p.m., the owner called the Coast Guard in Anchorage with this information.
The skipper then went below to the galley and found one contractor fully zipped into his survival suit, and a second contractor working to get his suit on. The skipper and the first contractor helped the man into his suit, but could not get the zipper up past his chest. This second contractor informed the others he could not swim, then he and the first contractor headed for the wheelhouse.
The skipper began helping the third contractor into his suit, but the man was too big to get the zipper past his chest. Saying “I can’t do this,” he also refused to climb the stairs to the wheelhouse and remained inert on the galley deck. The skipper dragged him to the bottom of the stairs, but was unable to carry him up the stairs by himself. He left the man on the galley deck and headed to the wheelhouse.
In the wheelhouse the skipper found the deckhand and the first contractor struggling to get the second contractor off the deck and onto his feet. Repeatedly the words “I can’t,” he refused to stand.
With the main deck now fully awash and the boat down heavily by the bow, the skipper ordered the deckhand to prepare to launch the raft from the weather deck behind the wheelhouse. While the deckhand went to this task, the skipper donned his own immersion suit, and made another VHF radio distress call. The fishing vessel Afognak Strait responded that they were nearby and were heading for the Exito’s position.
At some point the second contractor rose to his feet on the wheelhouse deck, but when the skipper told him and the first contractor to go out onto the weather deck to prepare to abandon the vessel, he refused. With elbows locked and hands braced against the wheelhouse door frame, he resisted the efforts of the first contractor and the skipper to get him onto the weather deck.
With the deckhand calling for help with the life raft, the skipper abandoned the recalcitrant contractor and exited the wheelhouse with the first contractor. Looking back through the door, he saw the second contractor clinging to the stairwell railing, while the third contractor stared up from the landing just below the wheelhouse deck.
The skipper and the deckhand threw the life raft canister over the side and pulled the CO2 trigger cord, and the skipper went back to the wheelhouse door in a final attempt to get the two contractors out. Just as he got to the door however, water surged over the deck and the Exito sank beneath his feet. He and the other two men on the weather deck were swept into the sea and swam to the raft, observing the EPIRB floating close by. The Coast Guard picked up its signal at 9:45 p.m., only 13 minutes after the owner had called them to report the ship’s position and situation.
An hour later the Afognak Strait pulled the men from the water and with another fishing vessel, the Commitment, searched through the night for the two missing contractors, who were never found.
While no exact cause of the sinking was identified, the subsequent National Transport Safety Board report discussed a history of reactive maintenance to leaks in the aging vessel’s tanks and hull and decided the sinking resulted from “progressive flooding from an undetermined location.”
Investigators also noted that while the starboard side main door from the galley to the deck was under water due to the ship’s list in the final minutes of the ship’s sinking, a port side door, presumably still above water until the ship’s last moments, was inexplicably posted with a sign saying it was unusable. Investigators believed the two missing contractors might have survived if they had exited the vessel through this door, rather than having to climb the stairs to the wheelhouse.
The Coast Guard also found that if the contractors had tried on their immersion suits before leaving Akutan, a larger suit might have been found for the contractor whose suit did not fit on the night of the sinking.
The report makes no mention of the apathy and even active resistance to help on the part of the two contractors on the night of the sinking. While laws and regulations have made working at sea a far more survivable enterprise than it once was, there still remains an indeterminate but powerful human factor which cannot be legislated or even accounted for. Despite the problems with their immersion suit zippers, and the fact that one of them could not swim, the refusal of the two contractors to participate in their own survival is remarkable, and notwithstanding unzipped zippers, is arguably the greatest factor in their deaths, aside from the sinking of the ship itself.
With the raft only a short distance away, it seems reasonable to believe they could have swum or been dragged to the raft by the others, and lived, if they had been able merely to walk out onto the weather deck and let themselves go into the sea. But they did not, and unpacking the reasons why they were not able to do so would involve a larger discussion of human perceptions and fears, deeper subjects perhaps than even the sea itself.
Toby Sullivan is executive director of the Kodiak Maritime Museum.