Fishing processor goes adrift after losing steering power

Posted: Tuesday, March 22, 2005

ANCHORAGE - A commercial fish processing ship with 204 people on board was drifting in the stormy waters of the Gulf of Alaska Monday after its steering system failed, the Coast Guard said.

The 325-foot Independence was tossing around in 20-foot seas in blowing snow whipped by winds as high as 60 mph, Coast Guard officials said.

"They're getting pounded pretty good," said Chief Petty Officer Roger Wetherell. "There's a lot of potential for injuries."

No injuries had been reported, but the crew formally asked for help late Monday afternoon. Possible measures could include sending Coast Guard engineers to help with on-board repairs or, in an extreme situation, evacuating the ship, said Petty Officer Sara Francis.

The Coast Guard sent two cutters from Kodiak Island to the site about 150 miles south of the Prince William Sound community of Cordova. Seattle-based Trident Seafoods Corp., owner of the Independence, was sending a chartered tug to assist the disabled vessel.

The cutters were expected to begin arriving late Monday and the tug sometime this morning. Also heading out was another Trident vessel, the Seattle Enterprise.

A Coast Guard crew aboard a C-130 transport plane flew to the area Monday afternoon and reported continuing storms and low visibility, Francis said.

"It's a rough ride, but everybody is OK," she said.

The trouble began about 7 a.m. Monday, when the port rudder failed as the ship was heading back to Seattle following the end of its cod season, according to Trident attorney Joe Plesha. Crew members disconnected a hydraulic piston driving the damaged rudder.

About noon, the piston controlling the vessel's other two rudders also failed. The system is not designed to operate on just one piston, Plesha said.

The cause of the system failure is not yet known, Plesha said.

"The ship still has its own power," he said. "It's not an issue of power but of steering."

The Independence, a floating processor built in 1938, has a history of mechanical and other problems, according to Coast Guard records.

Between 1994 and 2001, the Coast Guard investigated 10 incidents involving the vessel in Alaska, Washington state and Oregon. Seven involved mechanical problems and three involved discharge of oil, records show. No other details were immediately available.

Plesha said he had not seen the Coast Guard reports and declined to comment.

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