SEATTLE - Two men who served on the ill-fated Arctic Rose told investigators Tuesday that it was unstable and they couldn't wait to get off it.
Todd Wheeler, who spent about six months overseeing the processing crew in 1995 and 1996, didn't like the feel of the vessel when a big catch was hauled up over the processing section.
"If the seas were bad, we'd really rock and roll," said Wheeler. "With the added weight on top, we would really feel that."
Wheeler and former ship master Kevin Ward were among those testifying this week before a Coast Guard panel investigating the 92-foot fishing boat's sudden sinking in the Bering Sea, which killed 15 men April 2. There was no distress signal - just an emergency locator beacon that summoned would-be rescuers to an oil slick, the body of skipper Dave Rundall, an empty life raft and empty survival suits.
Ward took the ship to India in late 1993 to survey fishing opportunities there for a former owner. The boat returned early - "We didn't catch enough fish to make chowder" - and Ward said he was glad to leave it behind in 1994, in Seldovia on Alaska's Kachemak Bay.
He found the boat "very tender" - difficult to keep evenly balanced, achieved by moving fuel around in its tanks. Ward felt it had "an unnatural roll to it, almost like a shimmy." One calm day off India, due to a problem with a door, "the boat heeled over hard enough to throw me from the captain's chair," he said.
Wheeler said one time when he was on the boat in rough seas with a large catch, the weight forced part of the boat below the surface.
"The whole stern was basically under water," Wheeler said.
And water came in the hydraulic, weather-tight doors to the ship's factory section, "spraying in where the gaskets should have kept it closed."
The Coast Guard is holding a two-week proceeding in Seattle and a four-day followup in Anchorage. It has an Oct. 1 due date for its report on what caused the boat to sink, but agency staff said extensions are likely. Any Coast Guard recommendations will be in that report.
Officials said they hope for regulations that could prevent similar tragedies.
"The overall goal is to have a safe environment for fishermen to work in," said Capt. Ronald Morris, who is leading the three-person Marine Board of Investigations.
But some family members expressed concern that nothing will change.
Jennifer Tingey of Montesano, Wash. - whose brother Jeff Meincke was on board - had hoped for a fix to reduce the risk for the next bunch of kids out to make big money in the high-risk Alaska fishery.
"When you speed, you get a ticket," she said, exasperated at the lack of oversight in the industry, which has long resisted government regulation.
If regulation will help, the panel will take action, Morris said.
But first, "We need to find out what happened," he said.