Skiff Tragedies Avoided (or Not)

I thought it might be interesting to share sea stories on the subject of bad luck and skiffs. The story below is old, but I always remember it because it occurred when I was a young captain working in the area.

On November 7, 1990, the crab processing boat Coastal Star was anchored in Port Moller, a bay on the north side of the Alaskan Peninsula. Port Moller has strong tidal currents, and is shallow, with mudflats and sandbars. The nearest village was 12 miles away. In these operations, it’s normal to send the skiff to town once a day to get mail, parts, and workers.

The skipper sent the deck supervisor to the village in the skiff, along with another crew member and the fisheries observer. The skiff was big: 25 feet-long, aluminum, with good outboards. The crew had PFDs, VHF radio, and, importantly, instructions from the skipper: no screwing around. No showing off (the observer was a woman, the crew members, men). Radio the skipper once they got to the village. Etc. Several people heard the skipper give these instructions. The boat crew left during the slack before flood.

When no word was heard from the skiff via radio, the skipper called the USCG. The next day at daylight, the USCG flew over the area. The boat was found overturned, dug into a mudflat. Two bodies were found nearby. They were reported to have died from drowning and hypothermia. When the hull of the boat, deeply dug into the mud, was cut open, the body of the third person was found inside.

The USCG initially found the skipper to be negligent. I don’t have documentation as to why, but newspaper accounts state there had been a small craft advisory up at the time. Perhaps this was the reason why, but the actual weather was not reported to have been bad in the area. I was told by a person who would know, that the skipper got the USCG to publicly retract their finding, when his crew testified that he had given detailed instructions to the boat crew, and had properly outfitted the boat. Nevertheless, the tragedy followed the skipper for the rest of his life.

I’ve always wondered: What could have occurred to have augured such a big, heavy skiff upside-down into a mudflat? The tragedy serves as an example of a skipper doing things right when it comes to using a skiff, and still have people die. It points out too the usefulness of having witnesses when you give orders, or have someone sign written orders.

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In that same neighborhood, I remember going to Egigik for the first time. We laid on the wire a couple miles offshore. The engineer and I took the skiff up the river to the cannery to take soundings and look the beach over next to the cannery. It was a big heavy welded aluminum skiff with a good outboard and it was a proven performer. We were both experienced commercial skiff fishermen. The weather was pretty good when we left. I don’t remember the state of tide. The run up river was uneventful. By the time we came back out it had breezed up westerly and was a bit choppy with the river and tide flowing out to the NW. it became a damned rough and scary ride. The skiff had very erratic motions with any speed on. We had to go dead slow for about an hour. We were cold and wet but very glad to arrive back aboard.

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I think the crew got drunk in the village and got lost on the way back.

Except that no one in the village saw the skiff, there was no bar there, and the main reason the skiff went there was to drop off the fisheries observer so she could fly home.

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What for me immediately springs to mind is that it could have been a ground sea or ground swell that turned over the skiff. They are notorious for doing that here in the coastal areas of the North Sea.
There are two classes of ocean swells, wind swells and groundswells.

Wind swells only extends about 100 feet below the surface so they loses energy quickly. Groundswells are caused by by strong winds over long distances and over longer periods of time and could come from 1000 miles or so away, having a large fetch. Groundswells can extend to about 1,000 feet below the surface allowing for greater interaction with the ocean floor. That probably is the origin of the terms “groundswells” and “ground sea.”

A ground sea breaking

A ground sea is a wave that unexpectedly turns (breaks) and turns into a large, wild foam head. Ground seas arise when waves are slowed down by a shallower seabed, while the top of the wave wants to continue. The wave is “tackled” so to speak. Ground seas are extremely treacherous and dangerous. The treacherous thing is that this breaking could also happen in relative calm weather


Another one.

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Well, if the female observer was dropped off at the airport, I don’t know an airport without a bar. But the skiff never reached the shore. It capsized on the way in due to bad seamanship.

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My guess, and that’s all it is, is that the skiff was being run a full throttle up on a plane and going 20 to 30 knots when it ran aground, turned too sharp, hit an object, or simply struck a wave or a wake, or whatever, and it suddenly flipped over at speed. Speed kills.

The fact that there are not a lot more skiff accidents is a miracle.

I am frequently horrified during drills, or practical skiff use, at how many so-called “professional mariners” (including mid-career ABs making $300 to $400 a day) have no skiff operating skills, or common sea sense.

P.S. Try using Google Earth to view the “airport” at Port Moeller. Let me know when you find the bar.


Isn’t it inside that little shack?

:+1: :+1:
I think I mentioned somewhere else that IMO the “able seaman” exam should cover a something about this subject, and a little less about lifeboats. Not that I don’t think lifeboats are important, but because ignorance about small boats can be more likely to get a seaman killed.

One dodge I learned early on when landing a skiff on a remote beach is this: always have a bucket of braided line and an anchor.

It’s common in Alaska to land a skiff on a beach in the middle of nowhere on a bright sunshiny day, and then an hour later have 20-knots and a 3 foot sea. Then you and your fellow idiots drag the skiff to the water to leave, but the waves won’t let you. You can’t lower, let alone start, the outboard without guys waist deep in cold water on either side of the skiff, steadying it, and even then it’s a lot of drama.

So, before you make the landing you drop the anchor off the beach. 75 feet, a 100+ feet is great. A little anchor. You don’t need much. The line has to braided and with a soft hand. Just flake it hand-over-hand, like you’re “pouring" the line into the bucket, so it will run out fast. Don’t coil it, and don’t use 3-strand: coil the line and it will just knot up.

You drop the anchor offshore and motor to the beach, slowly trailing the line behind you. If you’re afraid of tangling the prop, run in reverse, feeding the line off the bow. You kick up the motor in the shallows and row the last few yards, or let the wind blow you in.

When you want to leave, launch the skiff and just pull yourself up the anchor line until you’re in deep enough water to drop and start the outboard. Pull the anchor up and off you go. No muss no fuss, no drama.


Was it Reisenberg or someone else who made that remark, “Few boatmen are seamen, and few seamen are boatmen”? I’ve found it holds pretty true even today.


A little beef I have with maritime academies. When I went to CMA you got a fraction of your USCG-mandated “seatime” standing watch in a laundry room ashore (!?!) or manning the reception desk at the commons room, or maybe quarterdeck watch on a training ship snugly moored to a dock for months. And yet the place had a dock, small boat house, and small boats galore.

Would it be too much for an instructor to tell a Firstclass man, "Your job is to take a couple of Fourthclass men in that 17’ skiff with an outboard up river to Rio Vista. Your job is to go 40 miles and get back without killing anyone. It isn’t that hard, and after four years of training you should be able to to this. Oh, and if your outboard craps out on the way back you just row the damn way back, because you should have been maintaining that outboard, because that’s another thing we’ve taught you along the way.”

There’s another thread on here about the value of MMA regiments, and how they build character. No debate there. But there are other ways to build character, and small boat handling is one of the them. It has the added benefit of actually turning you in to a seaman.

But, hey, I understand the value of guarding the dryer machine in the laundry room. Those socks are always going missing… :grinning:

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If you need to hire a guy to land barges with a lot of windage, look for a guy with a lot of small boat sailing experience. He has the weather eye.

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The Coastal Star seemed to have more than their fair share of skiff events.
Seem to recall in the late 80’s they dumped a skiff full of processors on St Matthews that required a hike across the Island to get the gang back to the ship. That event was caused by extremely poor judgment and sneakiness. Going to guess the culture hadn’t changed much.

Reading fatality reports for Alaska, skiff operations seem to always be at the top of the list.

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I think a key point here is the amount of contact between the skiff crew and information about proper operation.

For a person growing up in an Alaskan fishing village the contact points is going to be a lifetime exposure to other people with a lot of experience, stories, mentoring and so forth.

For a boat crew if it’s limited to 45 seconds of verbal instructions that’s not going to be very effective. This is the point you’re making with having the school do it. But for the most part it’s up to the vessel to give instructions specific to that operation.

As a start the key points have to be written down somewhere and the points have to be hammered home repeatedly. Otherwise a crew member with a couple successfully runs under his belt is going to feel he was born to it.

Need to move the odds a little on the experience bucket filling up before the luck bucket runs out.

As a 15 yo newly minted ordinary seaman (os) aboard the MIKI MIKI tug Christine Foss I was tasked to run the skiff into Bethel Alaska to pick up the off watch crew and bring them back. We were anchored in the Kuskokwim river and the fuel barge was riding on the tow gear astern. The river was ebbing pretty hard. I was by myself so started the outboard then let the painter go. Of coarse at that moment the motor died and I’m heading quickly toward the bow of the barge and all of the flotsam and debris in the river were going right under the barge. Somehow I had the presence of mind to push myself away by pushing on the stbd bridle leg and was able to get the skiff going down the side of the barge. After that fun carnival ride I got the motor started and completed the chore.

My father was the previous master for several years and as I came alongside I could hear the chief mate hollering that if anything happens to that boy old Capt B… will kill us. The chief engineer was a little sloshed after coming back from town and he hollered at the mate to leave the boy alone. Those were the days…………

The skiff was a 14’ Lund and the motor was Evinrude 20hp.


A 14’ foot Lund should be the state symbol of Alaska. Certainly, it is more dangerous than the brown bear.


I second that emotion!

Many years ago, we used the “Alternate” pilots group in Long Island Sound. Can’t remember the dock but a rather modern one .It jutted out quite a bit into the sound. The pilot asked us if we could run him to the dock after the job was over. He offered to pay my guys a minimal sum. Lowered our skiff, put two good guys in the boat and sent them away, By the time they were returning, a freak squall came up and their trip back was hellish. They made it back after a very wet and bumpy ride , and glad my Carolina duck hunter guy was on the tiller. Swore I would never do that again. Even in calm weather.

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Real Dumb Question:
If there would be one job on a ship I could do on day 1, it would be this one. I have been running various small boats around since about age 10. So pretend I am from FarmTown USA and have never been in a boat in my life. I sign up to see the world and ship out on a tug or freighter or whatever and do all the stuff the FNGs do like fixing rust and being chief bilge cleaner. One day someone says “take this skiff to town and buy some food”. So here is something I have never ever done in my life and I have no idea WTF I am doing.
Is there some training class for this at the various training academies?
When we gave our son an old Whaler for his birthday he also got a 3 day class that got him his Safe Boater Training and a lot of on-water instruction in a 17 foot Whaler including MOB recovery. That actually was a surprisingly good class.

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Age five for me.

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