Ice traps five boats in Bering Sea

Sailors say dramatic floe was like nothing they had seen before

Posted: Friday, March 30, 2007

ANCHORAGE - Ian Pitzman and his crew had transferred their crab harvest to a processing ship just off a remote Alaska island when slabs of ice rushed in faster than he'd ever seen in his two decades as a Bering Sea fisherman.

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"There were big pans of ice, jumbled on top of each other," the 38-year-old skipper of the Jennifer A said Thursday. "It looked like a moonscape, a big field of rubble."

Pitzman's 103-foot boat was among five vessels blocked in by the giant floes at least 12 hours before forging a narrow escape.

The 356-foot crab processor Independence, three boats collecting opilio crab and a freighter hauling the seafood finally broke free early Thursday morning from the ice choking the mouth of the harbor in the tiny island village of Saint Paul.

Crews were never in any actual crisis and there were no injuries, so they never called the Coast Guard, although the agency sent a helicopter crew over the vessels Wednesday night from its local station.

But it took the Jennifer A hours to inch through ice piled so thick that the five people on board the boat saw two foxes running on the slabs a mile from shore. By the time they hit open water, the boat's paint job was mauled.

The boat itself was sound, Pitzman told The Associated Press from a satellite phone as the vessel headed west on the Bering Sea to collect crab harvest gear.

"We're rocking and rolling in the water like we're used to," he said. "We're not supposed to be locked in an icy grip."

By mid Thursday morning, the ice they left behind had clogged up the entire harbor in Saint Paul, 750 miles west of Anchorage.

"From my office window, I'm just looking at all the white out there," said Jason Merculief, harbor master. "It's packed in tight. You can't see any water."

When Pitzman told his wife Wednesday that the vessels were stuck, she was "worried, but not too worried," she said from her home in Homer.

"Everything is so unpredictable and Mother Nature's wrath can be fairly swift," she said. "But Ian is a seasoned mariner, and he always errs on the side of caution."

A crab boat called the Nordic Viking was closest to the edge of the ice and got out first, followed by the freighter Eastern Wind, the most powerful of the vessels. It broke a path for the Seattle-based Trident Seafoods Corp. processor, which was carrying a crew of 225, a Trident spokesman said.

The Tempo Sea finally broke free after the ice pack opened up before dawn.

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