Master’s decision to navigate near uncharted rock caused grounding, NTSB finds

A master’s decision to navigate in an area with uncharted rocks, close in to shore, resulted in the grounding and capsizing of a commercial fishing vessel off Kodiak, Alaska, last year, the US National Transportation Safety Board has decided.

On August 7th 2022 at about 07:00 local time 36gt fishing vessel Challenger struck a submerged rock while transiting along the northwestern shore of Kodiak Island, Alaska, and began taking on water. The captain and three crewmembers used onboard pumps to remove the floodwater, but the pumps were unable to keep up, and the crew abandoned the vessel. A nearby Good Samaritan fishing vessel rescued them. The Challenger eventually capsized. There were no injuries, and no pollution was reported. Damage to the vessel was estimated at $600,000.

The Challenger, owned and operated by Alward Fisheries since 2007, was a 52.5ft-long, moulded, fibre-reinforced polymer-hulled purse seiner, built in 1989. The Challenger was an uninspected commercial fishing vessel that operated in the salmon fishery.

The morning of the accident the Challenger departed the west side of Harvester Island, where it had anchored the night before. The crew consisted of a captain, who had fished in the area for 15 years, and three deckhands, all of whom had previous fishing experience on the vessel.

Despite, or perhaps because of, his experience, the captain chose to stay closer to shore in the lee of a cape in order to reduce the effects of weather. This was also a promising area for fishing, he believed, and he planned to set nets when he found a good spot. He was aware of a large uncharted rock in the area, having seen it at low tide before, but he did not think that it was nearby. It was.

The captain of the Challenger used an electronic navigation system that incorporated updated NOAA charts for the area he was navigating. The charts, however, did not include the location of the rock. The northwestern coast of Kodiak Island, like many parts of Alaska, is remote with a complex coastline. These areas are not surveyed as frequently as would be a harbour or inland passage. Because of this, mariners should not rely solely on their navigation systems and nautical charts but also use other references, as well as their experience and knowledge of the area, the NTSB said.

Having struck the uncharted submerged rock (although there remained the possibility that it was a second uncharted submerged rock) , the captain checked for flooding and found water rising in the forepeak. One of the deckhands grabbed a portable dewatering pump and began pumping out the space. The captain made a call to another nearby fishing vessel to notify the skipper that the boat was in distress. 

Seeing that the waves were moving the Challenger back and forth on the rock, the captain decided to back down and attempt to pull free in order to minimize the damage. As soon as he did, the rate of flooding in the forepeak increased significantly. The captain went belowdecks and started up both of the vessel’s bilge pumps, but he quickly realized that they could not keep up with the rate of water ingress.

Four minutes after the grounding, the captain ordered the crew to abandon ship into the vessel’s seine skiff, which was easily accessible and seaworthy. Two other nearby seiners launched their skiffs to assist, and they helped Challenger’s crew to recover the valuable seine net off their stricken vessel. About six minutes later, Challenger capsized, though it remained afloat. 

One of the responding good Samaritan vessels, Sea Tsar, affixed a line to the capsized Challenger and began towing it to nearby Larsen Bay. Another vessel, Sea Ern, took over and completed the tow that evening.

Challenger was declared a total loss at a cost of about $600,000. 

After the casualty, investigators attempted to find the uncharted rock, without success. The location that local fishermen reported corresponded to an area that was last charted before World War II. While more than 70 years ago, that is a not unusual period for the remote waters of Southeast Alaska. 

The Coast Pilot for the area recommended giving the shore a berth of at least one nautical mile, but the Challenger was operating within about 220 yards when it went aground.

NTSB concluded that the probable cause of the casualty was the master’s decision to navigate closer in to the beach, in an area where he knew there was an uncharted rock.

NTSB also noted that the forepeak had a non-watertight hatch into a void below it. Water entering through the hole in the forepeak flooded the void, reducing stability. If the hatch had been watertight, it would likely have prevented progressive flooding and capsizing, NTSB concluded. Watertight collision bulkheads are not required on vessels of Challenger’s size.

The NTSB noted that the captain could have marked the uncharted rock on his charting software the first time he observed it but chose not so to do. The NTSB said that he assumed the risk of operating close to shore so he could be in the area where the weather conditions and fishing were more favourable, which resulted in the grounding.

The NTSB said that maintaining watertight integrity of a vessel was a fundamental principal of safe operations on water. Within the hull, watertight bulkheads are designed to prevent progressive flooding when portions of the hull are compromised in a collision or by other contact. The Challenger was not required by regulations to have watertight bulkheads. However, voluntary standards for uninspected commercial fishing vessels state that vessels should have a “watertight collision bulkhead between f5% and 15% of the vessel’s length aft from the bow,” and that the main machinery space “be bounded by watertight bulkheads which extend up to the working deck.”

The NTSB said that, if the bulkhead comprising the aft side of the forepeak and void below it on the Challenger had met the guidance in NVIC 5-86 and been watertight, the flooding into the void would have been contained, and the resulting progressive flooding that led to the vessel’s capsizing would likely have been prevented.