The Mystery of the Arctic Rose: The final voyage
Seattle Times staff reporters
Dave Rundall, skipper of the Arctic Rose, was in a foul mood. Garbage had clogged a pump in the boat's processing factory, shutting down the heading, gutting and freezing of the day's catch - flathead sole.
It was one more frustration in a season of them for Rundall and his 14-man fishing crew. All winter and early spring, they had suffered bad weather, bad fishing and a plague of mechanical problems.
Rundall needed a fish-filled payday - not another delay caused by a careless mistake. In a radio call to a sister ship fishing a few miles away, a furious Rundall bellowed his frustration.
At the time of that radio call, Rundall had made up his mind: This Alaskan fishing season would be his last. He wanted to go home to his wife, Kari, their three sons, and a menagerie of ducks, chickens and a pig on their small farm near Hilo, Hawaii.
Just hours later, at about 3:30 a.m. on April 2, the Arctic Rose disappeared into the ocean, taking the lives of all 15 aboard. It was the worst U.S. fishing casualty in a half-century.
In the weeks since, the fate of the boat has emerged as one of the biggest maritime mysteries in decades.
Its baffling disappearance is the focus of a U.S. Coast Guard investigation. A formal inquiry starts Tuesday in Seattle.
The weather and sea that morning were mellow by Bering Sea standards. No one heard a Mayday. And no one witnessed the last moments as the boat slid into icy darkness.
The Arctic Rose, now resting in 400 feet of water, will not easily yield its secrets.
On Jan. 13, the Arctic Rose chugged out of Seattle for the long Alaska fishing season. The converted trawler, owned by Arctic Sole Seafoods of Seattle, was rigged with funnel-shaped nets capable of scooping tons of fish from the sea bottom.
It sported a new, 750-horsepower diesel engine. But in a Bering Sea fleet that boasted some of the biggest fishing boats in North America, the Arctic Rose was small and slow. It measured only 92 feet at its keel - little more than the distance between the bags on a baseball diamond. It had a shabby exterior, a white wheelhouse atop a rust-streaked hull.
Jessica Hermsen wasn't impressed when she first saw it. She had come to the docks at Fishermen's Terminal to send off her boyfriend, Jeff Meincke. To her, the Arctic Rose looked like Jenny, the rickety old shrimper in the movie "Forrest Gump."
A slender, 18-year-old senior at Olympia's Avanti High, Hermsen met Meincke last October at an Olympia pool hall. She fell hard.
Meincke, the son of a pharmaceutical salesman from Lacey, planned to go to veterinary school. The freckled 20-year-old was polite, kind and driven to succeed. By the time he left for sea, the couple wore matching titanium tongue studs.
At sea, Meincke wrote Hermsen long letters declaring his love. He was lonesome, and chronicled days and weeks of hard work and tedium aboard the boat, which he took to calling the "Savage Rose."
He had some unlikely crewmates: two born-again Christians from Montana who planned careers in the ministry; three illegal immigrants from the Mexican state of Vera Cruz, who used false papers to get aboard; a middle-aged deckhand from Spokane called "Candyman" for his penchant for handing out treats.
Most, like Meincke, were first-timers at sea or had little shipboard experience. A few, like Milosh "Mike" Katurich, 53, were veteran mariners.
Katurich, a burly chain-smoker, had served as an engineer on many boats. His career stretched from his native Montenegro to the oil fields off Scotland and included 16 years working Alaskan waters. Gruff and weathered by a life at sea, he had come aboard the Arctic Rose in January, six days early, and worked nearly around the clock to prepare for departure.
The skipper, Rundall, had worked his way up from the fish-processing decks. He earned his master captain's license at 28 - a real accomplishment. Two years ago, he had given up a job as captain of a ship twice the size of the Arctic Rose, hoping to land work closer to home. But that hadn't panned out, and the lure of a paycheck led him back to the bridge of the smaller boat.
Rundall, 34, was blond, blue-eyed and buff. He lifted weights, even at sea, and shunned alcohol and drugs, Kari Rundall said. "He was very safety conscious ... and always thought things through."
He also could be funny, though he had "a bit of a temper," she said. "But he wasn't abusive. He was, I guess, what you'd call brutally honest."
The two fell in love as teenagers working aboard a fish processor in the Bering Sea. Kari Rundall left the sea after a single season and moved to Seattle to raise their growing family.
But her husband couldn't give it up. In 16 years, he never had a close call, but once watched in horror as a friend was swept overboard to his death. Shaken, Rundall had the Grim Reaper tattooed on one shoulder. Popeye graced the other.
Then last December, he jumped into the ocean during a family camping trip in Hawaii. A vicious tide suddenly sucked him into an underwater lava tube. Rundall clawed his way out, only to be yanked back. He was tumbled helplessly against the jagged rocks.
Just as suddenly, the ocean spat him out, bloodied and scared.
"I said to myself, 'There's our close call,' " Kari Rundall said. "He seemed really humbled by it, really shaken."
This was her husband's second season working for Arctic Sole Seafoods, and he needed it to be a good one. Last year had been a financial disappointment and Rundall had to ask his parents for help. In a Jan. 19 e-mail to his mother in West Seattle, he wrote, "I am in real desperate needs financialy (sic) until we get our first trip in. Will certainly pay you back for all that we have borrowed."
Trouble from the start
On its first day out of Seattle, west of the Strait of Juan De Fuca, a bearing overheated on the vessel's stainless-steel shaft, which transmits power from the engine to the propeller. Katurich told Rundall there was no choice but to limp back to Seattle for repairs.
Once there, mechanics put in a new bearing - one specially ordered from Canada - and did extensive tests. A vessel's shaft is key to its safe operation. If a bearing runs too hot, for too long, the shaft might seize or even break. A damaged shaft could tear up the packing that keeps seawater from entering a boat near the propeller.
To the dismay of Katurich and Rundall, the shaft bearings still ran hot as the Arctic Rose headed for Alaska a second time. They stopped just outside the Ballard Locks, at Shilshole Marina, for more work and testing.
Finally, the boat headed north. It arrived days later at Dutch Harbor, the busy Aleutian Island hub of deep-water fisheries. Katurich, still worried about the bearings, had custom temperature gauges installed so he could better monitor them.
Katurich thought the Arctic Rose a temperamental boat. But he liked Dave Olney, president of the company that owned the boat. Olney was a hands-on fisherman who sometimes skippered the Arctic Rose during its final trip. Whenever Katurich needed spare parts, Olney was quick to respond.
But the gruff engineer was wary of Rundall. "These young fishermen," Katurich said. "They all ride the waves like they're ... cowboys."
When a late January storm caught the Arctic Rose en route to Dutch Harbor, tensions flared between the engineer and the skipper. It was a miserable time, especially for the Mexicans, who were seasick and vomiting.
The Arctic Rose had a narrow hull and lots of heavy gear on deck. Katurich didn't like the way the boat felt as the waves grew. He wanted to head for the lee of an island and wait out the storm. But Rundall wanted to stay on course - even if it meant punching through the storm.
Katurich bucked the skipper, demanding they head for cover.
Rundall reluctantly agreed.
Some of the crew reveled in the adventure of the job, but everyone aboard the Arctic Rose was there for the money.
Even the meanest job - cutting and gutting fish - can pay $40,000 in a nine- to 10-month season. The pay compensates, in part, for the risk: Fishing is the most dangerous job in the country.
To find fish, the Arctic Rose had cruised more than 1,800 miles from Seattle across the Gulf of Alaska, then north through the Aleutian Islands, into the richest harvest grounds in North America and one of the wildest places on Earth - the Bering Sea. Winter storms and hurricane winds can whip the ocean into a cauldron of waves 40 feet and higher.
Its unforgiving weather complicates the harvest. For a small boat like the Arctic Rose, rough weather can make it hard, if not impossible, to deploy the cone-shaped fishing nets.
As the days turned to weeks, the crew saw some ferocious storms - and few fish.
"The weather has been crappy," Meincke wrote home to his girlfriend. "Last night we were in 40-foot swells and 70 knot winds. Pretty nasty."
Later, he wrote: "It's a never-ending roller coaster: up, down, back and forth. I've had way too much down time. There's nothing going on."
Freezing spray wrapped the boat in an icy topcoat that had to be broken loose for fear the ship might capsize under its weight. In a slugger's marathon, Meincke and the crew would take baseball bats to the ice.
Meincke, the youngest crewman, always seemed to end up with the most perilous job: breaking the ice that coated the top of the wheelhouse high above the pitching deck. "Nobody else will go up there in this weather," Meincke wrote.
His can-do attitude quickly propelled him up the ship's pecking order from the slimy processing line to the deck, where he helped haul in the nets. Rundall liked Meincke's moxie, and told his mom in a satellite e-mail "about this one kid" who reminded him of himself.
Even on days when the weather was calm enough to drop the nets, the Arctic Rose crew struggled to find fish.
"Day two of fishing. Actual fishing," Meincke wrote in disgust. "Yesterday we didn't get anything, and today we got twice that."
The hard-luck crew began to burn out. Through the weeks of early winter, some quit as the Arctic Rose occasionally docked in Dutch Harbor to resupply.
On a Feb. 28 port call, Katurich left the boat. He had hoped, after the first six weeks of work, to earn at least $20,000. Instead, his wages were $6,303.
"Bah!" he said, waving his hand in disgust. "I'd rather lay down for nothing than work 12 to 18 hours for that."
With Katurich about to leave, Olney, the president of Arctic Sole, promoted his younger brother, Mike, from assistant engineer to engineer.
The Olney brothers had grown up on a small farm in Deming, in Whatcom County. Dave Olney, 48, had worked his way to the head of a successful fishing company while Mike Olney, some 13 months younger, struggled to find himself.
He had worked off and on as a machinist at Todd Shipyards in Seattle and, when he could, would go commercial fishing with his brother. Aboard the Arctic Rose, he worked as Katurich's assistant, helping keep the boat running.
Katurich had full confidence in the younger Olney, but he was uncertain about the boat's new assistant engineer, G.W. Kandris. The 26-year-old from Tacoma had limited experience as a mechanic and had never worked aboard a fishing boat.
March proved as bleak as February. The weather was lousy, the fish elusive. Once, the net snagged on a crab pot and ripped. That meant more down time as Meincke learned a new skill - net mending.
As the month came to a disheartening close, Dave Olney directed the boat to move farther west - deeper into the Bering Sea to an area known as the Zemchung Flats - to fish for flathead sole. The season opened April 1.
But first came a final port call at St. Paul, a small, barren island more than 300 miles off Alaska's southwest coast. It boasts seabird rookeries and beaches that attract hundreds of thousands of amorous northern fur seals, and a few fish-processing plants.
On March 30, as the Arctic Rose approached St. Paul, Meincke wrote the final passages of a 17-page letter to Hermsen:
"Morale on the boat is low because the fish just isn't around. But it's the near end of our contracts and everyone is eager to leave. Half the crew is taking off. I would but I haven't made any money yet. And we will get a big fat bonus for sticking around."
In St. Paul, Meincke mailed the letter and then called Hermsen to say he was cold, bored and homesick.
Dave Rundall called home, too. "He was really upbeat and said that he had had the guys out with bats breaking ice," Kari Rundall said. "He was really hopeful to go out and catch some fish."
They sailed the next day, March 31. The tiny island - the last outpost of U.S. soil before Russia - quickly faded from sight. The Arctic Rose churned through the seas for 30 hours, traveling through the night and into a weak dawn light that would yield to skies of gunmetal gray.
On April 1, the boat reached a desolate fishing spot more than 200 miles from any protective shore. But it was not alone.
The Alaskan Rose, also operated by Arctic Sole Seafoods, was successfully prospecting the sea bottom a few miles away. The Alaskan Rose was bigger, wider and more powerful - a brawny big brother to the Arctic Rose.
This two-boat buddy system offered a margin of safety. If something happened, either crew could call for help and get a quick response.
Rundall dropped his nets less than 10 miles from the Alaskan Rose and found fish. Tons of flathead sole, prized as fillets in the East Coast market, were hauled from the depths.
At about 4:40 p.m., he sent a final, upbeat e-mail home. He suggested a muzzle for Buster, the family's chicken-snatching, chihuahua-terrier mutt. He asked about 4-year-old Max, his youngest son.
"I love you I love you and I miss you I miss your pretty face," Rundall wrote to his wife.
The sister ship
Over on the Alaskan Rose, first mate John Nelson took the helm on the night watch and chatted on the radio with Rundall, who shared good news: The Arctic Rose had landed a full net with 20,000 pounds of sole, enough to keep its crew working through the night. The boat's clogged pump - the source of so much frustration earlier that day - was fixed.
Nelson, who lives in the Seattle area, was happy for his good friend. The two men had swapped plenty of fish tales and shared family stories in port.
Nelson, 40, was a crew-cut veteran of the Bering Sea who had quickly worked his way up in the fishing industry.
At about 10:30 p.m., the two chatted again, this time about a damaged net aboard the Alaskan Rose, and what would be an all-night effort to prepare for the next day's fishing.
In rough weather, Nelson said, he would have made frequent radio contact with the smaller Arctic Rose. But this night the sea was mellow and he was overseeing repairs. Nelson knew the Arctic Rose was close. He presumed it was fine.
Sister ship unaware of disaster
Sometime around 3:30 a.m., the Arctic Rose disappeared. As it dropped below the waves, its emergency beacon, a Thermos-size device, popped free from its bracket on the wheelhouse. It bobbed to the surface and began emitting a distress signal.
The signal was picked up by satellite and relayed to the U.S. Coast Guard in Juneau.
At 4:02 a.m., the Coast Guard sent a satellite e-mail to the Alaskan Rose, advising it of the distress signal and the last known position of the Arctic Rose. The Coast Guard also broadcast a series of radio alerts on high-frequency channels.
Aboard the Alaskan Rose, Nelson said he heard only chatter from nearby Russia on the radio. He said the ship's Toshiba computer was programmed to beep the arrival of urgent messages. There were no beeps this night. The Coast Guard lacked software that would trigger the Toshiba's alert mechanism - a capability that has been added since the Arctic Rose sank.
At 7:40 a.m., a Coast Guard C-130 plane dispatched to the search area raised Nelson on the radio. He spun the Alaskan Rose to a new heading and tried to stay calm. Sometimes, he reminded himself, emergency beacons accidentally activate.
He radioed the Arctic Rose. No response.
He checked the laptop in the wheelhouse. There he found the e-mail from the Coast Guard and another from a worried Dave Olney, who had been wakened at home in Seattle by a call from the Coast Guard.
The search for survivors
It took the Alaskan Rose an hour to reach the search area. A smoky flare dropped by the Coast Guard search plane cast an eerie light across the ocean, illuminating the emergency beacon. A smear of oil spread across the sea.
There was no sign of the Arctic Rose. The crew leaned over the boat's rails. They saw a baseball bat, a lone rubber boot, a plastic container of food. A single empty survival suit floated on the waves.
About 10 a.m., a lone figure was spotted bobbing in the sea. It was Rundall, dressed in a thick orange neoprene survival suit.
The Alaskan Rose nudged closer, but the surging ocean kept Rundall just out of reach.
Nelson, the boat's designated rescue swimmer, pulled a survival suit over his 195-pound frame. Tethered to a lifeline, he climbed down a ladder and jumped into the 36-degree sea.
Nelson had sampled the Bering Sea's chill before in calm-water drills. But in the open ocean, he had to be careful not to swallow the surging water as he swam the 30 feet to the motionless Rundall.
Rundall's eyes were open, his survival suit securely fastened.
Nelson shouted. No answer.
A wave slapped Rundall's face. No reaction.
Nelson slipped a foam sling around Rundall, who was hoisted aboard the Alaskan Rose. When the crew sliced off his survival suit, water spilled out, meaning he had probably put it on after he was in the water. He was fully dressed, with his boots on.
Rundall worked a day watch and should have been sleeping when the distress signal was launched. Something must have awakened him.
Nelson, a trained volunteer firefighter, felt for Rundall's pulse but couldn't find one. He began cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
For 50 minutes, he tried to revive his friend.
But Rundall's eyes were glazed. His lips turned blue and his arms stiffened.
Finally, Nelson gave up.
The Alaskan Rose, joined by two Coast Guard cutters, spent a futile day searching for survivors. A second body, not in a survival suit, was spotted but could not be recovered. Five more empty survival suits and an empty raft were found.
Then the weather turned ugly. Gale winds and freezing spray hammered searchers. On April 3, the Alaskan Rose turned back and delivered Rundall's body to authorities in Dutch Harbor.
At the port, not a man chose to leave the boat. A few days later, it returned to the Zemchung Flats, to the spot where the Arctic Rose sank. The crew tossed flowers into the sea as the ship's bell tolled 15 times.
While the fishing had been good in the area, it was a graveyard now and the crew had no desire to be there.
"We headed off somewhere else," Nelson said.
The former engineer
Milosh Katurich hopes to find work aboard a Russian vessel this summer. In the meantime, he can be found at a Ballard cafe, smoking and sipping coffee.
He keeps his last pay stub from the Arctic Rose - for $6,303 - in his wallet, like a talisman. He ponders why the boat sank, and whether he could somehow have managed to keep it afloat.
Sometimes he walks down to Fishermen's Terminal. There, standing before the Fishermen's Memorial, he stares at photos of his former crewmates.
Two weeks ago, Kari Rundall held a luau and memorial for her husband on their farm near Hilo. She believes that, in those final moments, he was up, perhaps sensing something was wrong, and that he pulled out survival suits for the others.
She thinks back to December when Dave Rundall almost drowned. It is as if he had been given back to his family for Christmas, and then taken for good.
"I just don't want to hear that he suffered," she said.
Jessica Hermsen heard the news on a TV at the Brewery City Pizza Co. in Olympia where she works as a hostess. At first, she couldn't believe it. Could it be a joke?
She later learned that Jeff Meincke had been quietly planning to propose when he got home. And a few days after the Arctic Rose disappeared, a letter arrived. It was 17 pages long.
It was sent from St. Paul, post-marked March 30, two days before Meincke's death. In the left-hand corner, where return addresses are written, he had scrawled the words: "From the middle of Freakin' Nowhere."
Friends and relatives of the Arctic Rose crew, as well as former crew members and those who worked aboard the sister ship Alaskan Rose, were interviewed for this report, which also includes information from letters and e-mails from the crew. Additional research was done by Seattle Times researcher Vince Kueter.
Hal Bernton can be reached at 206-464-2581 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mike Carter can be reached at 206-464-3706 or email@example.com.