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Oregon Tuna Vessel Sinks, Husband-Wife Crew, Two Cats Survive

Newport fishermen’s wives organization collecting donations

 

The F/V Sea Princess operated by Mark and Cynthia Schneider out of Winchester Bay, Oregon, went down August 5 after an explosion blew out one side of the hull while the veteran fishing couple were trolling for tuna. Fellow fisherman Rick Goche rescued the pair, plucking them out of the ocean about 20 minutes after they sent out a distress call and abandoned ship. Photo by Cynthia Schneider.

Albacore tuna fishermen have endured vagaries of wind, weather and water during a 2013 season that has ebbed and flowed, but two long-time tuna trollers lost almost everything the first week of August when their vessel went down about 80 miles offshore northwest of Coos Bay, Oregon.

Mark and Cynthia Schneider, who have fished together each summer for 25 years while living aboard their vessel, lost the 60-foot F/V Sea Princess on August 5, when an explosion below deck in the engine area blew a hole in the hull, sending the boat, fishing gear and related equipment, 17,000 pounds of tuna and most of their personal possessions to the ocean bottom. The couple radioed for help and abandoned ship, bobbing on the waves for about 20 minutes before fellow fisherman Rick Goche rescued them – and ultimately their two cats, Topaz and Jasper.

“It was quite an experience – better than any ride at Disneyland,” Mark quipped, recalling the incident during a September 9 telephone conversation from the couple’s winter home in LaPine (central Oregon).

Think “Pirates of the Caribbean,” except the pirates are firing a live broadside that can take out the side of a vessel, which is exactly what happened to the Schneiders. Mark said of the blast that “literally took out half the boat.”

Ironically enough, after strong wind and vacillating water temperatures played havoc with albacore tuna fishing early in the season, August 5 offered the Schneiders decent weather, a calm sea and good fishing.

They set out from Winchester Bay, Oregon in late July aboard a vessel they had poured their hearts and souls into reviving.

They had just finished upgrading and refitting the Sea Princess, a wooden vessel built in 1924 – an acknowledged “fixer-upper” purchased three years ago that soaked up a lot of time and money, but provided them with more stability in rough seas and more storage capacity. They worked on the aft-house schooner through most of 2011, half of 2012, and for three months this year, repairing and remodeling the time-tested and sea-ravaged vessel from bow to stern, with careful attention to detail to meet their own high standards for safety and mechanical features.

“These old boats have a lot of character,” said Mark, noting that they had “always dreamed of owning” an aft-house schooner, and worked diligently to basically bring this one “back from the brink of death. It needed a tremendous amount of work.”

This tuna fishing venture was their first of the season aboard the refurbished schooner, and never in their worst nightmares had they envisioned it being the boat’s last voyage.

Trouble at Sea

The Schneiders avidly follow the Boy Scout motto of “be prepared.” Fellow fishermen say they installed safety equipment and features that were impressive by US Coast Guard standards long before they were mandatory. They took many Coast Guard safety classes, and regularly honed their survival skills. They also carried tools and supplies needed for making repairs at sea, if necessary.

“If there’s one good thing to come out of this from a fishing standpoint, it’s to remind others about being ready, because this could happen to anyone,” said Mark, who is known for attention to every little detail and leaving nothing to chance. In other words, don’t’ skimp on safety measures.

“Everything was in place when we needed it to be, all the things really necessary to stop us from panicking,” he added.

But even the most seemingly immoveable safety precautions can’t completely override an irresistible, unexpected disaster.

The Schneiders were in full fishing gear, including float coats, hoods and earplugs, and everything was smooth sailing, or so it seemed.

They said a routine check of the engine room about 45 minutes before the explosion revealed nothing out of the ordinary. “I went over everything with a fine-toothed comb,” said Mark. “Yet we had an accident.”

The engine backfired three times, the third followed by the blast that ripped a massive chunk out of the hull, sent a fireball rolling out of the engine room, knocked Cynthia several feet backward, and gave both of them first-degree flash burns on their faces. The boat’s fire suppression system worked well, they said, but to no avail for the doomed vessel, and Schneider credits their Coast Guard training for preparing them for various types of situations, including such a crisis at sea so many hours from shore.

They quickly went into survival mode, but a few tense minutes went by during which Mark searched frantically for their pair of feline crew members.

Their calico Topaz and tabby Jasper, both ironically already rescued once on land from the animal shelter, acquired their sea legs while living on the boat when the Schneiders worked on it in Winchester Bay. But nothing from that experience taught them how to deal with a sudden plunge into the ocean that likely cost each of them at least one of their proverbial nine lives.

Everything happened quickly – within minutes, the Schneiders said.

Moments after the blast, Cynthia radioed for help, notified the Coast Guard they were abandoning ship, and donned her survival suit. She also stuffed her purse, some jewelry and a camera into a backpack. Mark, meanwhile, went to the engine room to assess the situation. Seeing sky and ocean where hull should be and water rushing in to fill the gap, he realized they were sinking and must abandon ship.

But initially he refused to leave without the cats, who were nowhere in sight and didn’t respond to his calls for them.

Mark told Cynthia they were sinking and he couldn’t leave the cats behind. She told him to get into his survival suit, that the cats would follow their natural survival instincts. “I kept calling and calling for the kitties, but I’m sure they were traumatized by the blast and didn’t know what the heck was going on. I was very focused on my kitties,” Mark said of the felines that he regards as furry children. “I always believe that you never leave anyone behind. I was determined to find them, but they were hiding pretty good. Cynthia finally got me snapped out of it. She had to yell at me to get me off the boat.”

Finally convinced that the cats, if they had survived the blast, would eventually come out of hiding and swim for it, Mark leaped overboard with Cynthia, and they spent 15 to 20 minutes bobbing on the ocean until help arrived.

Rick Goche, a longtime commercial tuna and salmon fisherman, current chairman of the Oregon Albacore Commission and a Port of Bandon commissioner, was fishing with his brother Larry aboard the F/V Peso II, about 1.5 miles away, when he heard the late afternoon call on the radio. He and several other fishermen also fishing nearby – including some who had witnessed the blast – pulled their gear and responded to the scene.

“Rick was close enough to come over and pick up Mark, Cynthia and the cats from the water,” noted Nancy Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Oregon Albacore Commission, in an online message posted to the Western Fishboat Owners Association (WFOA). The Schneiders are members of the non-profit association that represents more than 400 family-owned albacore fishing vessels, fishermen and supporting businesses in Oregon, Washington, California, Alaska, Hawaii, New Zealand and British Columbia.

After plucking the Schneiders from the water, everyone gathered on deck to watch the Sea Princess in its death throes. Other fishermen arrived and encircled the sinking boat, keeping a solemn, silent and grim vigil for the 40 minutes or so it took her to disappear completely beneath the waves.

As the boat sank deeper and deeper into the water, they spotted four-year-old Topaz swimming frantically through the flotsam and debris toward them. Goche nabbed the dripping wet, frightened feline and brought her aboard. That left one-year-old Jasper unaccounted for until they spotted him, stranded on the boat’s bow, hanging onto the anchor and stubbornly ignoring their pleas and refusing to abandon the lost boat until it was nearly gone and he had to either sink with it or swim.

He finally chose to also swim toward his owners, making it safely aboard Goche’s boat. All hands accounted for, human and feline.

Nothing is certain, but Schneider, after much discussion with Coast Guard investigators, speculates that a pinhole leak in the diesel tank sprayed a fine mist of fuel into the intake, making it backfire. The concussion from the last backfire knocked the top off of a freon-filled refrigeration canister and ignited it.

Whatever the reason, their boat and means of livelihood is lost, at least for now. “We still had tuna hanging on the gear,” Mark noted.

Preserving a Way of Life

Newport Fishermen’s Wives (NFW), based in Newport, Oregon, has set up a fund to help the Schneiders.

This non-profit organization serves as anchor, lighthouse and life preserver for fishermen and their families, and liaison to the larger community. Its members take every opportunity to offer seafaring and seafood education to the public through its many venues, and work toward improved safety for fishermen and their vessels. They show others the ebb and flow of the nation’s most hazardous occupation and how it’s woven into the social and economic fabric of coastal communities - and beyond.

“Faith and perseverance must be part of any fishing family and business,” says Connie Kennedy, co-owner with husband Tony of the F/V Majesty. “You don’t hear fishermen say they are going ‘catching,’ because there are no guarantees, yet they must be optimistic and prepared for everything.”

Commercial fishing, fishermen and their families note, is both a business and way of life.

Most commercial fishing families like the Schneiders are independent small businesses, individually and collectively plying the ocean to harvest its bounty.

For more than 30 years, NFW has filled the gap between competition and cooperation by providing “a network of support to each other and our fishing community.” But the outreach extends well beyond a mere public relations role.

“Fishing families and those who work and live alongside them are keenly aware of just how treacherous commercial fishing can be,” said fisherman’s wife and commercial fishing advocate Heather Mann. “When an accident occurs, it is a knife through the heart of the community, sharply felt by those of us who live here and devastating to the families of those lost.”

She and all others involved in this topsy-turvy industry understand that the most important fishing line is the financial bottom line.

So beyond the emotional trauma of injuries and deaths is the economic havoc accidents can wreak.

A fisherman’s death often occurs at the beginning of a season or major fishing trip before landing or delivering any fish. No fish, no paycheck. Families of fishermen lost at sea and never recovered must sometimes navigate treacherous government agency waters to obtain a death certificate. And it can take weeks or even months for life insurance funds to become available. Losing a vessel – even an insured one – can easily end their way of earning a living, and the lifestyle that goes with it.

Most of all, NFW is a place for the women to share ideas, hopes, dreams, joys and sorrows as they keep the home fires burning. They say all fishing families, have had to adjust and “make sacrifices while out at sea,” with none more devastating than loss of life or vessel, or both.

Comeback Time

Fortunately for the Schneiders, everyone survived this incident, including their feline family members. All things considered, Mark said as horrible as the sinking itself was, conditions were “very much in our favor” for survival. The day started with 20-knot winds that had dropped to 10 knots at the time of the accident. The weather and waves were calm, not stormy, the accident occurred during the day instead of at night, and they had several fishing partners nearby.

“We used to live on the boat and work 365 days a year,” Mark said, noting that they did so aboard their former vessel, the 48-foot F/V Sea Princess, chasing after Dungeness crabs, salmon and albacore tuna. “This is the first August in 23 years that we spent the whole month at home. It’s kind of weird.”

When not at sea, the Schneiders live in LaPine (central Oregon). They moved there six years ago, lured by the excitement of snowboarding. Mark said he traded crabbing for snowboarding, calling it a good move. They’re now trying to chart their future course under difficult circumstances.

But commercial fishermen are, as Mark noted, “a resilient bunch.”

Married for 32 years and fishing partners for 25, the Schneiders are already negotiating the purchase of another aft-house vessel with a fiberglass hull they located in Canada. They had hull insurance, but only enough other insurance to cover about half of the money they put into the Sea Princess. He said their business partner, Portland, Oregon-based New Seasons has stepped up and been instrumental in trying to help them recover as quickly as possible. The Schneiders provide tuna for New Seasons outlets, as well as canning and marketing their own tuna under their “Catch of the Sea” label.

Their product line could change a bit once they get back to the fishing life.

Mark said several colleagues have mentioned how “Captain Jasper” stayed with the boat until the last second as it went down. They suggested a “Captain Jasper” line of products, perhaps for discriminating felines.

“He deserves it,” said Mark. “He stayed with her until she disappeared from under him.”

One thing is certain – the Schneiders have no intention of disappearing from the fishing life. And NFW and others are trying to help.

Jasper, a one-year old male tabby, sits on the bow of the F/V Sea Princess as she sinks beneath the waves. “Captain Jasper” – as he is now affectionately called - stayed with the ship until it disappeared below the surface, then swam to safety after an August 5 belowdeck explosion ripped out the hull about 80 miles offshore from Coos Bay, Oregon. Photo by Cynthia Schneider.

NFW assists commercial fishing families during tragic times through the Fishing Family Relief Fund. Most of the time, it means giving them a small check to cover the cost of basic needs. Other times, with the family’s consent, NFW manages a bank account for tax-deductible donations from the local community.

In 2012, the amount given to families whose boats went down exceeded $10,000. As of September 7, they had gleaned $2,000 for the Schneiders.

Send donations, designated for Mark Schneider – F/V Sea Princess, to: Newport Fishermen’s Wives, Inc ., P.O. Box 971, Newport, OR 97365. For more information, call 541-574-5555, send email to fishermenswives@yahoo.com, or go online to http://www.newportfishermenswives.com.

 
 
 
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