Saturday, January 27, 2007


NE WIND 15 TO 25 KT.
When you see pics like this it's hard to believe there's no surf in Oregon...
Nonetheless, it's nice to see what a 17 second period can do with an eight foot swell...
Getting to this left is no picnic, I assure you...
Not to mention...cold, fickle & sharky.
On a more sober note...
A crabbing boat was rolled on the Tillamook Bar on Thursday night, ending up on the south jetty...
Ship, life lost at roiling bar
A harrowing ordeal on the jetty spares three crabbers heading into Garibaldi

Saturday, January 27, 2007 LORI TOBIAS

TILLAMOOK -- Spirits were high aboard the crabbing vessel the Starrigavan: After a season of late starts and lousy weather, the four-man crew was returning to port with more than 5,000 pounds of crab.

"We were starving, and we finally got crab" said Sam Johnson, a crew member. "After all this season, we were finally catching crab."

"And we were actually going to get paid," added Gregory Phillips, called "Green," short for greenhorn, because this was his first season.

It was Thursday night, and after two days at sea, the Starrigavan was bound for the Port of Garibaldi by way of the Tillamook bar. But by the time the men saw the white water on the churning bar, it was too late.

Hours later, one man was dead, and the 58-foot steel-hulled boat was ripped apart and lying on the south jetty's rocks. Two of the survivors, Johnson, 39, and Phillips, 23, described Friday how the promising fishing trip turned into a nightmare.

The Starrigavan departed on Tuesday from the Port of Newport with Kirk Opheim, 23, of Burlington, Wash., at the helm and Ken "Skinny" Venard, 50, as well as Johnson of Seattle and Phillips of Siletz.

"It was beautiful," Johnson recalled from his bed at the Tillamook County General Hospital, where he was treated for injuries. "It's always beautiful out there. We were catching crab; we were flowing."

Heading in

At about 9 p.m., the Starrigavan began its return journey across the bar, the notoriously dangerous stretch of water at the entrance to the jetties where bay waters meet head-on with the churning ocean. At that place, sand tends to build up, making the area shallow and even more volatile. In 2004, the charter fishing boat Taki-Tooo went down there, killing 11. And in February 2006, the Catherine M, a commercial fishing vessel, floundered while heading in, claiming the lives of three fishermen.

On Thursday, 11-foot seas and 17-mph winds prompted the U.S. Coast Guard to close the bar to recreational and small vessels. But that should not have been a problem for the Starrigavan.

"It should have been safe enough for a vessel of that size to get through unless something went wrong on the boat," said Shawn Eggert, a Coast Guard spokesman. "That they closed the bar at all indicates the weather was a little rough."

First wave hits

The first of several 25-foot waves set the boat rocking, Phillips said. Then, as the skipper struggled to right the boat and get back out to safer waters, Johnson saw a second wave coming and yelled for his mates to brace themselves. "I was looking it right in the eye," Johnson said. "It was like it was coming after us."

Opheim had just enough time to radio one mayday before the wave struck. "Ever see a wave control a 92-ton vessel?" Phillips asked. "Look inside a washing machine and watch the clothing tumble over and over and over."

The third wave flipped the Starrigavan. It would roll three times before the waves slammed it up against the south jetty's rocks.

Inside the wheelhouse, it was chaos. "Skinny was pinned," Johnson recalled. "Greg and me pushed him out the door."

On deck, the men, pressed by the seas to the deck rails, struggled with their survival suits. "Skinny was against the rail trying to put his on, and it just sucked it off of him," Johnson said of the waves. "Mine, I was tied up across my chest, just tangled in this mess of wires."

Against the wheelhouse

The men managed to get off the rails and up against the wheelhouse bulkhead, which offered some protection from the seas. But the boat was shattered, and the upper deck was slamming into them, Phillips said. From shore, someone flashed lights, and the crew knew they'd been spotted. Help was on the way.

About half an hour into the ordeal, the Coast Guard arrived by boat and began sending up flares, but reaching the Starrigavan would be too treacherous. There was nothing to do but await the rescue helicopter en route from Astoria.

By then, the men, wearing only shirts and jeans, were suffering from hypothermia, and Venard's condition was deteriorating. About one hour after the mayday call, a Coast Guard helicopter lowered a rescue swimmer by basket to the boat, and the crew members and rescue swimmer began working to get Venard into the basket.

"I had Skinny by the legs," Johnson said. "The diver had him by the arms. We didn't see the wave coming. It ripped Skinny right out of my hands. He smashed into the other side of the boat. When I saw him again, Skinny was in bad shape. I thought if we could just get Skinny out first, we were all going to make it."

"Wouldn't give up"

The waves kept pounding them, but the rescue swimmer wouldn't quit.

"He took a beating like I've never seen before," Johnson said. "He just wouldn't give up. He kept telling us, 'You guys are going to be OK. I'm here, you are going to make it.' "

Three of them did. Venard died later that night at the hospital from his injuries. Phillips and Opheim were released Friday morning. Johnson remained hospitalized with cuts all over his body.

Friday night, the Coast Guard reported that the boat was on the south side of the south jetty at the bar entrance, about 500 yards from shore. It was upright in about 12 feet of water.

As Johnson recalled the events that claimed his buddy, his voice gave way to emotion. "He was a good spirit, always willing to offer his shirt off his back," Johnson said. "On New Year's Eve, we were on the boat. No one had any money. He spent his last $5 to get me a calling card to call my wife."

"He gave all"

In Newport, friends had started a collection for Venard's three children in Colorado, said Debra Burrus, owner of a boat Venard had worked aboard for 11/2 years. "He was the most awesome kind of guy," she said. "He was the kind of guy who put all his friends first. He gave all and took nothing."

Although this was his first season, Phillips wants to go back out fishing. Johnson isn't so sure.

"To tell you the truth, at this moment I'm afraid to even step on a dock," Johnson said. "I'm tired of walking by benches and seeing my friend's names on them. I thought I was next. Skinny didn't deserve that. I wish it would have been me."


pushingtide said...

Here's to skinny. Keep fishin'.