Coast Guard releases report on cutter fatality

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Equipment failure, improper placement of a Coast Guard crewman on a small boat and a Bering Sea swell contributed to the crewman’s death aboard a California-based cutter during an Alaska rescue mission, an investigation has concluded.

The Coast Guard on Thursday released its major investigation incident report in the death of Petty Officer 3rd Class Travis Obendorf, who died Dec. 18 from injuries suffered five weeks earlier aboard the Alameda-based 418-foot Cutter Waesche.

The Waesche on Nov. 10 was on its way to a port of call at Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands when it received orders to help a fishing boat, the 166-foot Alaska Mist, which had a mechanical failure and was adrift 30 miles north of Amak Island. The fishing boat with 22 crewmen was able to anchor 8.5 miles from the island 625 miles southwest of Anchorage.

The Waesche reached the stricken vessel at 2:30 p.m. Nov. 11, four hours before sunset, and made plans to tow the Alaska Mist. However, officers decided to ferry 14 nonessential crew members from the disabled boat, using a small boat aboard the cutter called a “short-range prosecutor.”

The 25-foot boats are driven by a crewman at a center console. They are launched and captured from a stern notch in the cutter. A capture line is supposed to mechanically hook up to a horn on the small boat and pull it into a capture net. However, the capture line did not function as designed, investigators said, and needed human assistance. The cutter “overcame the functional deficiency of the capture line by placing a boat crewman forward of the boat’s center console during the notching evolution,” investigators said.

It proved fatal. The wind was blowing at 20 mph and swells were 10 to 12 feet but coming from different directions.

About 3:15, the 25-foot boat with five fishermen and three crew members approached the stern of the cutter, lined up for a capture and moved forward. As the small boat entered the cutter notch, a large swell surged into the rear of the small boat, lifting the stern and shoving the bow underneath the capture net, which slammed Obendorf into the center console. He bounced up and gave a thumbs-up signal, but seconds later, a larger swell hit the small boat again.

The small boat surged forward and the capture net again slammed Obendorf into the center console, this time seriously injuring his head and knocking him unconscious.

A Coast Guard helicopter from Cold Bay reached the cutter 65 minutes after the accident. Obendorf was flown to Cold Bay, Anchorage, and finally, Seattle, where he died.

The capture line, designed to work without human assistance, did not work, investigators concluded. Prevailing weather also played a role. The cutter had made 130 safe launches, and the weather Nov. 11 did not strike key personnel as extreme to the point of being unsafe despite conditions in excess of published, safe operating limits, investigators said.

“Despite the planning, risk assessment, active monitoring of an on scene conditions and adjustments to ship course and speed to optimize a safe recovery, the mishap occurred,” investigators said.

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