Coast Guard says a wave likely overwhelmed charter boat near Sitka last year, killing 5

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Morgan Robidou poses with the charter boat Awakin, in October 2022. Robidou and his four passengers died when the boat sank near Sitka in May 2023. (Courtesy Facebook)

The U.S. Coast Guard presented its findings last week on the sinking of a charter boat near Sitka that killed five people last year, saying the boat likely capsized after it was hit by a wave.

The Awakin was a very typical charter boat for Sitka: 31 feet long, aluminum hull, twin 250-horsepower outboards, eight years old, and fully equipped with radar, radios, and other electronics for the kind of day fishing it was designed to do.

This type of boat is common in Alaska’s charter industry. Called a “well deck,” it has a big central cabin, and tall sides that allow passengers to safely walk all around the perimeter of the boat when fishing.

While the well deck makes for great fishing, it proved to be a conspicuous liability in the tragedy that struck the Awakin on May 28, 2023,  at exactly 2:43 p.m.

“We determined, based on all the evidence before us and an analysis, that the initiating event of the Awakin’s casualty was a sudden flooding of Awakin’s  well deck by a large swell,” said Cmdr. Nate Menefee, who led the Coast Guard’s investigative team.

He told Thursday’s standing-room-only crowd in Harrigan Centennial Hall that the Coast Guard’s forensics lab was able to recover the data from the laptop on board the Awakin used for navigation.

Investigators could determine position, speed, and depth of the water under the Awakin from the moment it departed Sitka’s Crescent Harbor at 6 a.m. until the moment it stopped recording at 2:43 p.m., when the Awakin was on a slow drift south of Low Island, its passengers jigging for rockfish at the end of a long day of trolling for salmon and halibut fishing.

The Coast Guard Investigative Team began its Casualty Report with a solemn recognition of those who lost their lives in the incident on May 28, 2023: vessel master Morgan Robidou, 32; Brandi Tyau, 56, and her partner Robert Solis, 61, of Canoga Park, California; and Danielle Agcaoili, 53, and her husband Maury Agcaolli, 57, of Waipahu, Hawaii.

On a good day, the shore of Low Island can be treacherous. The bottom is irregular – formed by lava from the Mount Edgecumbe volcano thousands of years ago – and ocean swells can suddenly heave and break, especially at low tide.

Menefee said the Awakin, its captain busy assisting clients, was likely taken by surprise by a breaking swell that first flooded the boat, and then rolled it.

“The loss of vessel control may have prevented the master from making a radio distress call,” he said. “The loss of control could have been due to electrical or mechanical issues, or the chaotic situation that would likely ensue following the swamping of the vessel’s well deck.”

Robidou, the Awakin’s owner and captain, was young and in his first season operating a charter boat, but he knew his business. He grew up in Sitka and had logged over 800 service days on the ocean toward earning his 50-ton master’s license. Also, he had taken this same route 19 times in just the previous five days.

Safety aboard a charter boat – officially called an uninspected passenger vessel, and unofficially known as a six-pack – is heavily dependent on the master. The Awakin was well-equipped with safety gear, including two “digital selective calling” radios that would have sent an SOS and the boat’s position, if only someone had known to push the button.

The DSC system, called the “Alaska 21 Rescue System,” is relatively new and has “reliability issues. On May 28, 2023, there was no DSC coverage in Sitka Sound from a Coast Guard shore station, although a message could have been relayed – had one been sent.

Unfortunately, Robidou himself was likely among the first two people swept overboard.

“it’s very probable that anybody standing on the back of the well deck may have gone overboard including the master,” said Menefee.

With no captain and no other boats nearby, the remaining passengers on the Awakin were in dire straits. Uninspected passenger vessels in the U.S. are not required to carry a life raft or an emergency position-indicating radio beacon. The beacon, also known as an EPIRB, is a device which automatically releases from a submerged boat and sends an emergency signal.

The investigators said a well-deck hull lacks adequate drainage if a lot of water suddenly floods over its tall bulwarks. Once swamped, it did not take much for the boat to roll and capsize. In perhaps the most tragic detail of the investigation, a passenger remained alive in the submerged cabin of the Awakin for at least half an hour and sent several texts asking the recipient to call 911. Then the person, referred to as Passenger One in the report, tried calling Sitka police dispatchers.

“There were five outgoing calls to 911 on Passenger One’s phone made between 15:01 and 15:12,” a narrator said during a slide presentation. “Data showed all five attempts to call 911 as not answered.”

Sitka police dispatch records show no calls were received during that time. Although there is spotty cell service in Sitka Sound, investigators believe that it was impossible for Passenger One to obtain a signal while trapped in a submerged aluminum boat.

The investigative team examined several other factors that it concluded played no role in the loss of the Awakin or its passengers:

— Although one full and one partially-full bottle of rum were found on board, Morgan Robidou’s blood alcohol level was consistent with the natural post-mortem process between his death on May 28 and his autopsy on June 9, and not from consumption of alcohol. Charter guests often gave Robidou bottles of “Captain Morgan”-brand rum as gifts.

— Awakin’s anchor was found fouled on the bottom near Low island, but investigators concluded that it slipped from the bow roller after the boat capsized.

— Flare sightings reported in Sitka Sound during the search were not related to the incident. The Awakin’s flare kit was recovered intact and unopened.

— Although winds were expected to increase offshore to small-craft level later in the afternoon of May 28, they were not yet high at the time of the incident. The Awakin was under control until the moment it was lost.

— Discrepancies at Low Island between raster charts and the Time Zero vector charts in use on the Awakin’s navigation laptop (although the Team notified Time Zero of this issue).

The Awakin was due back in port at 4 p.m. on May 28. When it failed to arrive, fellow charter operators began calling the Awakin on VHF radio. Others began looking, and at least one boat went all the way out to Cape Edgecumbe following the Awakin’s usual route. It wasn’t until almost 5:30 p.m. that the owner of Kingfisher Lodge notified the Coast Guard of an overdue vessel.

Typically, once the Coast Guard decides to initiate a search, a helicopter can be airborne in a half-hour. On May 28, a half-fueled helicopter was ready at Air Station Sitka, but the pilot, expecting a long search flight, ordered a full tank. The pit crew encountered some problems, however, and it was 58 minutes before the helicopter took off.

Air Station Sitka commander Capt. Vincent Jansen supported his pilot’s decision, although looking back it was clear that the fueling issues weighed heavily on him.

“I’ve been flying for 20 years, the fuel tanks and the fuel pit we have right here in Sitka is the best I’ve ever seen,” said Jansen. “And it’s also the most well-maintained. We had two malfunctions that day with that fueling system. It’s Murphy’s Law. Everything else was by the book but it couldn’t happen at a worst time. And I own that.” 

The 58-minute delay likely didn’t matter. By the time the Coast Guard was notified that the Awakin was overdue, the five people aboard had been in the water two and a half hours without flotation devices, or trapped in the sunken vessel’s cabin, and almost certainly no longer alive.

The investigators made a handful of recommendations to Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Linda Fagan to prevent similar tragedies, including requiring uninspected passenger vessels to carry life rafts and EPIRBs – much like the commercial fishing fleet – and to have significantly more drainage on deck. It’s not clear whether anything will change, however.

“We’ve made these recommendations before,” Menefee said, referring to the life rafts and EPIRBs.

Robert Woolsey is the news director at KCAW in Sitka.

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