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Coast Guard reconstructs mystery sinking

Analysis points to a capsize caused by instability, but families of the two victims suspect a collision

Taking a cue from the high-tech sleuths on television's "CSI," the Coast Guard has used underwater audio recordings from 19 acoustic whale-tracking buoys to help reconstruct the sinking of the fishing vessel Patriot, a 62-foot dragger that went down off Gloucester, Mass., with its two crewmembers in 100 feet of water in January 2009.

A sense of mystery surrounds the Jan. 3, 2009, sinking of the Gloucester, Mass., dragger Patriot. The 13-year-old vessel was built as a shrimper, without plans or blueprints, and later was modified to work as a dragger.

In its final investigative report, released in September, the Coast Guard describes how it used the buoys to construct a timeline of the dragger's last hours fishing on Stellwagen Bank, where the devices not only record underwater whale vocalizations but also the sounds of engines and props of nearby boats.

The Coast Guard asked the Navy's super-secret undersea surveillance office in Virginia Beach, Va., to help decipher and analyze the boat sounds in the vicinity of Patriot's sinking that night. The analysis revealed when the vessel was trawling, when its crew hauled its fishing nets, when the diesels shut down, when the vessel likely sank - based on sounds that Navy analysts associated with water filling the hull (perhaps in as little as three minutes, about 1:15 a.m.) - and when it likely hit the bottom (about six minutes after that).

The Navy was able to discern the engine speed of both Patriot and a tug - the Gulf Service - that had a barge in tow 1,300 feet astern and passed within 2-1/2 miles of the fishing vessel, according to a Coast Guard analysis of positions transmitted by Patriot's Vessel Monitoring System and Gulf Service's Automatic Identification System.

The tug's rpm remained constant as it motored through the area, but Patriot's changed as the crew prepared to set the nets, trawled for three hours, then hauled the nets. The buoys also detected the sound of an auxiliary motor on Patriot that was believed to have been the vessel's washdown pump. The tug and barge motored past Patriot between 11:50 p.m. and 12:10 a.m., continuing at 8 knots on a southerly course that took it beyond the area where the boat sank, according to the timeline of the Navy analysis.

'Tough one to understand'

The Coast Guard report cites vessel instability as the possible cause of the sinking, but that has not changed the opinion of the families of the two drowned crewmen that the boat went down in a calamitous collision. "The sound recordings from the acoustic buoys seem to support [the instability] theory, but common sense does not," says Stephen Ouellette, the Gloucester lawyer who is speaking for the crew's families.

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They still believe the dragger must have hit something that holed the hull and caused the boat to sink so quickly that the two could not get off a mayday or don survival suits. "This is a tough one to understand," Ouellette says.

The vessel was carrying an EPIRB, but it did not send off its 406 MHz signal until three days after the sinking, possibly because its batteries were weak, according to the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard report recommends - among other things - mandatory inspection and certification of commercial fishing vessels and stability tests for those smaller than 79 feet. (The tests already are required for vessels longer than 79 feet.)

Ouellette says the recommendations are not likely to sit well with an industry that likes its independence, but "whether or not the industry likes it, it's coming." He thinks it will be tough to justify stability tests for vessels strictly built to engineers' drawings, though not if a vessel has been modified, as many are when they change hands or are adapted for new gear or different fishing. "As a practical matter, the industry should be looking very carefully at whether modifications affect a vessel's righting characteristics," he says.

But he says the loss of Patriot is not a clear-cut case of vessel instability, although the 13-year-old vessel was built as a shrimper, without plans or blueprints, and later was modified to work as a dragger. Those modifications included smaller outriggers for deploying paravanes to dampen the vessel's rolling, a shortened boom, two smaller winches to replace a larger one on deck, two net reels - one abaft the cabin, another at the stern - and a gallows frame at the stern.

Conscientious captain

Capt. Matteo Russo, 36, Patriot's captain, and deckhand John Orlando, 59, his father-in-law, both of Gloucester, drowned Jan. 3, 2009, after Patriot capsized and sank 15 miles off Gloucester  Harbor. Neither was wearing a life jacket or survival suit. Both fishermen were experienced, with more than 20 years on the water. Russo and his wife, Josie, had bought the steel-hulled boat in March 2008.

Patriot's captain, Matteo Russo, and his wife bought the steel-hulled vessel in 2008.

Ouellette says Russo was a conscientious captain who took pride in his boat, maintained it well and equipped it with all of the required safety gear. "He had duplicate everything," Ouellette says. He didn't have just one backup VHF. Patriot carried at least five of them, plus five survival suits and two EPIRBs. It is unclear why the second EPIRB did not go off.

The weather was not extreme that night. Winds were 15 to 20 knots, and seas were 2 to 3 feet, according to a weather buoy slightly more than 10 miles from the wreck site. Air temperature was 32 degrees, visibility six to eight miles, and there was no ice buildup on any of the rescue boats, so that shouldn't have been a factor. "How could two experienced men have a boat sink under them without any warning?" Ouellette asks.

He says that remains a mystery, although the Coast Guard concluded that the Patriot "likely capsized ... leading to rapid down-flooding through her open fish hold and engine room hatches."

The cause of the capsize: "possibly" vessel instability. "It's a surmise, basically," Ouellette says. "They're guessing."

And so the families remain dubious about the conclusions of the Coast Guard's investigative report, released after a 19-month investigation.

Early in the investigation the Coast Guard identified the Gulf Service and determined that the tug and its barge had passed within a couple of miles of Patriot. Investigators had this analysis in hand, plus the Navy's analysis from the acoustical data. Both indicate that there were no vessels near Patriot when she sank. "Based on evidence that there were no vessels in the vicinity of F/V Patriot between 1:12 and 1:21, the Coast Guard believes F/V Patriot did not sink due to collision," the report concludes.

The report notes that Patriot had never undergone a stability test and was not required to have one, so investigators don't know what her stability characteristics were. However, the report says a previous owner added concrete to the bilge, "indicating stability had been a concern in the past."

Families want closure

The report concludes that a number of factors could have simultaneously contributed to the capsize: an uneven fuel load (the vessel had two fuel tanks, one starboard and one port); a full load of fish on deck (there's no way to know how much she was carrying, but it could have been as much as 2,800 pounds, its legal limit); water on deck (perhaps from washing it down); 6 tons of ice in the fish hold (the load could have been unevenly distributed); pulling the cod end of the net - where the fish are trapped - high up on the boom; and leaving the 1,200-pound trawler doors unsecured to the gallows frame, so they were free to swing on their blocks.

The Coast Guard deployed a remotely operated camera to examine the Patriot wreck.

In addition, the acoustical analysis indicates that it took the crew 42 minutes to haul in the net, a job that usually takes 20 minutes. During that time, there were a lot of engine speed changes, suggesting frequent engaging and disengaging of the hydraulic system that hauls in the nets. Based on video footage of the wreck that divers and a remotely controlled camera took, some of the net was off one of its reels and wrapped tightly around the axle, and the washdown hose was tangled in the net.

"These haul-back abnormalities could not have solely caused the F/V Patriot's sinking; however, they may have distracted the crew from a developing dangerous situation," the report concludes. "The cause of this capsize was possibly a stability failure created by a combination of factors and initiated by the lifting of the cod end of the net off the deck."

The boat suddenly capsized, and water flooded in through the open fish hold and engine-room hatch. The report says Patriot likely capsized at 1:12 a.m., the crew jumped overboard between 1:12 and 1:15, and by 1:25 they had drowned.

Earlier in the investigation, the families hired divers to go down and shoot video of the wreck. "We videotaped every inch of that boat that was visible," Ouellette says.

Ouellette says the families want to send divers down again to double-check from inside the boat whether there are any breaches in the hull where it rests on the bottom. Perhaps Patriot hit a shipping container or some other piece of debris.

He also wants them to take a closer look at one of the trawl doors, which was damaged, and the washdown hose and water pump to see whether they or some other part of the plumbing gave out and let loose a torrent of water inside the boat.

The crew's families still consider the loss of Patriot unexplained and "unexplained losses of vessels are always very difficult to deal with," Ouellette says.

They want closure.

This article originally appeared in the February 2011 issue.