This was written in the early morning hours on Tuesday, Nov. 21, by Frank Gee, owner and captain of the California Dungeness and salmon boat Ocean Gale.
My crab boat Ocean Gale went down a few hours ago west of south traffic lane. Everybody is OK. Aubrey, Erica, Kenny and I are all OK and uninjured. Thank you Smith Bros 2 skip and crew for picking us up, and for all the boats who heard and responded to our maydays.
I just want to recount this harrowing evening while it’s still fresh in my mind, and maybe it will help another crew one day.
We were running a string around dusk today when Aubrey noticed smoke beginning to pour out the stack. Then the wheelhouse started filling with smoke and an acrid smell. My eyes and lungs started to feel like they were burning. We barely got off two maydays before the wheelhouse was filled with choking smoke.
We cracked open the engine box and grabbed one of our large extinguishers, which unfortunately slipped out of our hands and dropped into the engine room fire. We grabbed another larger extinguisher and fired away, and almost knocked down the fire, but we didn’t have enough propellant and the flames came back. Now we were down to our small extinguishers. And they weren’t powerful enough to put out the fire. We had to evacuate the wheelhouse, even though the Coast Guard was still trying to get more info on POBs, etc.
I went back into the foc’s’le to get the four survival suits. Erica followed me back and bravely helped me throw them out the door, as we were fighting through the smoke, which was getting thicker by the second. A few minutes later on the back deck, I could see that the wheelhouse inside was starting to glow orange, and I knew then that the fire had progressed past the engine room and into the main cabin. At this point I realized we couldn’t save her. This was about seven minutes after the fire started.
I sent Aubrey to throw off and deploy the raft. Kenny was able to fire off one rocket parachute flare. Kenny then said, “THE SART!” I pulled it off the cabin and activated it. Then I told everyone to get into their survival suits and into the raft as Aubrey held it next to boat. Then I put my suit on, but couldn’t zip it up; my hand kept slipping out of the glove over and over. Kenny saw I was in trouble and came back aboard boat to help me zip it up. Then we both got into raft.
We started paddling like mad, but after a few minutes, we looked around the door of the raft to the back, and we hadn’t gone anywhere. In the few short minutes it took us to evacuate and board the raft, the entire (fiberglass) boat was aflame from stem to stern. Windows were popping, things were exploding inside the hull. We could feel the growing heat coming from the boat, which had become a torch. We needed to get away fast, or the raft would catch fire. That’s when we realized we were fouled with the stabi lines.
We all went in with a knife handy. I took mine out of the sheath and cut the stabi haul-in line. I was using the arm part of the survival suit to hold a brand new Vicky, because the glove had slipped out of my hand again. I was finally able with difficulty to cut that line, but then my Vicky dropped into the sea.
We then started paddling again, and somehow lost one of the paddles. We looked around and still it seemed we weren’t pulling away from the boat. Kenny said we weren’t clear of the stabi yet, and crawled out to use his knife to cut another line. Then that blade was lost, too. Started paddling again with one paddle, but we were still caught.
We couldn’t see that well over the back of the raft canopy. Aubrey, thinking quickly, got out and crawled on top of the canopy and over us, and yelled out one other line was still fouled with us. This line was 3/8″ Spectra for the main stabi line. He pulled out our last knife and started working on it. After a few minutes, we were all yelling, “Did you get it? Did you get it?”
Aubrey said, “I’m trying! It’s not cutting!” The dull Vicky wasn’t making good progress against the Spectra. I said, “You GOTTA cut it.”
I knew if we didn’t, when the boat started sinking it would take us down with it. I started thinking about evacuating the raft in case Aubrey couldn’t cut it. Then after what seemed like a real long time, he got it cut. The painter line had already melted in half on top of house, so we didn’t need to cut that. But possibly the drogue chute line had also caught with the stabi. We started paddling again, and this time we made distance between us and the boat.
It was night now, but the boat was all aflame with an orange glow. Now I knew we’d be OK. Shortly Smith Bros 2 found us and picked us up.
My final thoughts on my pride and joy, the fishing vessel Ocean Gale: She was a good ship. She gave her crew the time they needed to get off before she died. I told the Coast Guard investigative officer a couple hours ago, who asked me what other comments I had: Those little mariner 110-type units we felt were almost useless for us tonight, just 5 seconds of discharge before empty. The larger units we had gave us many more seconds of propellant. Also, if there’s someone who can alter sleeve (and leg) lengths of the survival suits, that would be very helpful.
Finally, for believers or unbelievers, I felt God spared four souls tonight.