Shipwreck - Mysteries of Death at Sea

The vast cold seas near Kodiak Island cover a massive highway of death, where uncharted pinnacles and hidden rocks have claimed the lives of more than 1,000 people during the past 250 years. While that might sound like overly dramatic prose, Capt. Warren Good, 64, who conducted more than 30 years of meticulous research on Alaska shipwrecks, warns that jagged rocks will continue to cause more fatalities in Kodiak's fishing industry and throughout waters off Alaska's shores. Good can document 4,748 deaths out of 3,624 Alaska wrecks. However, he believes that hundreds or thousands of other ships simply disappeared and went unreported from 1750 to 2010.


Fatalities are particularly high in Alaska because, unlike fishermen in the warmer waters off the southern coasts, few mariners survive when their boats sink in the frigid waters around Alaska.

Postings from survivors and relatives of the missing on (Good's web site) help Good update his research and uncover clues.

"[Around 1965] we were fishing off Sitkalidak Island [near Kodiak] when a tremendous storm came up," Alaskan Charles Cagle posted. "We headed in as fast as we could, but on the way in we heard a mayday from a brand-new King Crabber that was crossing the Gulf of Alaska with 10 people aboard. Our wind indicator at one point pegged over to 110 mph then quit altogether. We had 2-3 inches of ice on our mast cables in just a few minutes," Cagle said. "We pulled into a bay and dropped the anchor 3 times before it hooked steady, the wind was so hard.

"[The king crab boat] waited too long to cut loose the crab pots before they iced up and rolled over and sank," Cagle said. "I was horrified to hear all this on the ship-to-shore radio. They were all lost."

Jim Brisco, a former commercial fisherman, posted the following: "I had the unfortunate honor of being on two boats that sank in a 25-year fishing career that started in Kodiak and ended in the Bering Sea." As a crewman of the Elva V in 1973, Brisco remembered when the crabbing vessel crashed onto submerged rocks. "The vessel hit a rock and we took a skiff and paddled ashore and built a fire," he said. "We were picked up that night by Tim Longrich of Kodiak on his small Dungeness boat."

Brisco said he was also the captain on the 92-foot Eagle, a steel crab boat, which sank on Oct. 31, 1980. "The boat was orange and black and sank on Halloween night," he said. "Everyone got off safely." And yet, Brisco admitted that over the years, he lost a lot of friends from other ships in the area that weren't so lucky.

For various reasons, the waters surrounding Kodiak have proven particularly treacherous. Between 350 and 400 shipwrecks litter the beaches and ocean floor around Kodiak Island—57 of which were losses reported during the earthquake and tidal wave of March 27, 1964. The rocks just off Spruce Cape often capsize boats, but the Barren Islands, between Kodiak and the tip of the Kenai Peninsula, are the most lethal. "Nineteen vessels have been recorded lost there," Good said, "but I expect there were many others."

It's the kind of thing that kept Good up at night. Good, who lived in Kodiak and worked on dozens of boats out of Kodiak and Dutch Harbor as a fisherman, holding jobs from cook to captain, spent 10,000 hours creating a comprehensive listing on his website of Alaska's shipwrecks. His aim was to honor the memory of his lost friends and pay homage to the dead and the missing. But as patterns emerged in stories and data, Good started to pressure U.S. Coast Guard officials to acquire subsurface assets, such as submarines, to investigate dangerous submerged features including Cowanesque Rock, which was named after one of its latest victims.

In October 1960, an unmarked pinnacle ripped open the belly of the Navy oil tanker Cowanesque about six miles east of the Barren Islands, in the middle of a well-traveled coastwise route where many vessels have disappeared. Good said the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey waited until 1966 to add the new feature on marine charts. Prior to that, Good believes many other ships crashed in the exact same site for the same reasons. "I have identified 26 vessels that disappeared between 1799 and modern times that may have met their fate at that location," Good said. "Most disappeared while traveling to, from, or passing Kodiak."

But how does Good know what caused the boats to sink? "I would wager [Cowanesque Rock] has more than a dozen different kinds of bottom paint or other anti-fouling materials marking the peak of the pinnacle. I call these 'metal skid marks' because of the materials usually left behind." He likened the evidence to looking for a missing car along a lonely stretch of road. "You see a set of tire marks directed off into the woods, and you stop and see where they lead." Case in point: In 1898, the Clara Nevada disappeared with as many as 75 people on board. Investigator George Stowell filed a report stating: "After the Clara Nevada stuck, she slid back thirty feet on the shelving reef, a fact we determined from marks of paint on the rocks, for vessels always leave their calling card when they strike a rock."

Pinnacles would always hold these clues. "At the very least, samples of the top of the pinnacle could be collected with only snorkel gear and examined with a mass spectrometer for indications of things like bottom paint, copper and lead," Good said. These details help identify cause and effect and, Good maintains, should help correct errors in marine charts that have resulted in many lives lost at sea.

For example, in 1931 the 72-foot freighter Iskum struck a rock and sank—and a subsequent wreck report was filed with the U.S. Coast Guard at Ketchikan. But the rock that the Iskum hit was not added to marine charts until 1966. That's a three-decade gap that deserves explanation, and unfortunately it's not an isolated case.

"I have identified dozens of pinnacles that were missed in early surveys by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey vessels. They have done a good job, but Mother Nature is sneaky," Good said. "In areas where strong currents, tides and winds wreak havoc with the survey vessels, sometimes submerged features were missed. Several were missed multiple times so mariners trusted their charts." It is not unusual on early marine charts for a pinnacle or rock to move miles, from one decade to the next.

The mystery of what happened to the ships that simply disappeared throughout the years around Kodiak and other Alaska islands continues to haunt the maritime world and the heartbroken loved ones of the captains and their crew. But Good believes their stories should be told, even when crewmen did not survive to tell their own tales.

More than one third of all lives lost were from vessels that disappeared or were lost with all hands, according to Good's research. Since 1965 alone, there have been 44 boats and 209 people that simply vanished from sight.

It is a terrible tragedy when a boat is lost and those who are lost with it are not recovered for a proper burial. "When vessels leave port and just disappear, the doubt is corrosive. It eats away at the spirit," Good said, explaining that his website still receives inquiries from loved ones about vessels and crewmen who disappeared up to 50 years ago.

Consider a woman who identified herself as Kim and was searching for information about her uncle's boat that sank February 20, 1975. Several fishermen recalled the boat and her uncle and contacted her through the site. Good located someone who had a piece of her uncle's artwork, a driftwood and beaded mobile. Another man relayed the tragic end of her uncle's boat, writing: "The 90-foot, wood- hulled fishing vessel Marten struck a pinnacle off Spruce Cape four miles north of the town of Kodiak and sank. Two of the four crewmen swam away from the wreck and clung to a cliff all night through a snowstorm. Only one survived, Jeff Alexander, who had the lowest body temperature ever recorded in a living human when he was taken to the hospital."

Commercial fishermen have always considered themselves tough men, risking their lives for a chance to strike it big and make a decent amount of money. Most fishermen understand and accept the dangers inherent in the profession, but not their families. Loved ones often wait for years on shore for men who will never come home.

"The tragic news stories fade as newer disasters on Alaskan waters play out," Good said. "But when it is your fiancé, husband, son, daughter or loved one, the memory is always alive with sharp images and emotions." Knowing what happened and connecting with others through his site allows people a portal to heal.

Unfortunately, shipwrecks that disap- peared or were "lost with all hands" went to the bottom with no witnesses to warn future mariners of the dangers that cost those in the vessels their lives.

Good said court hearings that convene to settle the affairs of those lost are often filled with officials from government agencies, insurance companies, vessel builders and owners whose primary agendas are rarely productive with respect to what really happened in the shipwreck.

"Most of the evidence presented is associated with the protection of the asses or assets of those in attendance," Good said. "The hearings and other similar proceedings associated with disappeared and 'lost-with- all-hands' vessels almost always totally exonerate all officials, companies and owners, leaving only the vessel crews to blame for the losses."

He said skippers and crewmembers are often presumed to be at fault, which is the equivalent of a charge of dereliction of duty involving loss of life. The onus of blame is left with the family who is already burdened with the doubt and anxiety associated with an unresolved shipwreck.

"Obscured by time, many of the mishaps and disasters have been forgotten," Good said.

"Unfortunately, the factors that led to them still lurk and humans still make mistakes."

Good said shipwrecks could be avoided or minimized if the U.S. Coast Guard or someone else had a submarine rigged for forensic analysis of shipwreck sites. The value of a lost steel crab boat could change considerably if it were discovered that a faulty weld resulted in a catastrophic hull failure, instead of the circumstantial conclusion that he skipper had overloaded the deck with iced-up crab pots.

But Good, despite his passion, is like David fighting the Goliaths in the shipping industry. His ideas collide with opinions coming from the feds and major insurance companies. Good said the wrongful death losses would be worth considerably more than the insurance payout for a shipwreck blamed on the crew.

Good believes the largest gain from real forensic evidence would come from removing the onus of malfeasance or dereliction of duty placed on the crews—that, and finding other vessels with weak hulls might protect others from meeting the same fate.

The good news is that modern boat design and advancements in navigational technology have made Alaska fishing safer. After 20-year- old Yale student Peter Barry died in August 1985 due to a shipwreck, his father—a former congressman—pushed Congress to pass the Commercial Fishing Industry Vessel Safety Act, which now mandates safety equipment on all fishing boats. The mandatory gear and equipment now includes survival suits and Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacons that transmit the location of boats or people in distress.

Numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that fishing disasters have declined, due in part to modern boat designs and safety equipment. But fishing remains the most dangerous occupation in America, with a fatality rate 30 times that of the average American worker.

The sad fact is that since the 1800s, boat hulls have been sliced, propellers mangled, and ships have simply vanished without a trace. Some boats that disappeared into the unknown could only portray their horrific fate through their cargo, like the mysterious hundred cases of salmon, bearing the Kodiak Packing Company logo, that washed ashore at the south end of Alitak Bay along with pieces of an unidentified vessel.

When boats disappear in Alaska's icy waters there are often no witnesses, no evidence of what happened. The U.S. Coast Guard often deals with a fruitless search for missing men. Some of Good's friends encountered the same fate. "They simply disappeared," he said. "Some of my friends just left port and that's it, they never came back."

Good believes that when fishermen die at sea their deaths often remain unexplained, their bodies never found, their lives soon forgotten by the public. He is fighting to keep their memories alive. "I dedicate my Alaska shipwreck research not just to those who were lost, but also to those who hold a place in their hearts for them to be found," Good said. "There are many of us and we will never forget."  

Roni Toldanes


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