Bellingham fishermen rescued from boat in 70 mph windstorm

Three fishermen were rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard early Thursday, March 10, when their commercial fishing boat broke free from its moorage in a 70 mph windstorm.

Bergen, a 52-foot wooden fishing boat based in Gig Harbor, had been moored near Bellingham Cold Storage, 2825 Roeder Ave., as the crew prepared for a three-month trip to Bristol Bay to fish for black cod.

The boat, built in 1939, makes the trip every year, said deckhand Jacob Imholt of Everett.

“Seventy-five years, I believe,” he said. “And this is the end of it.”

The windstorm roared into Whatcom County Wednesday night with gusts of 70 mph, stripping trees and knocking out power for thousands. The Bergen was tied to pilings with thick dock line: a bowline, a mid-ship line and a stern line, said Imholt, 35.

Around 5 a.m. the crew awoke to the boat thrashing in the water and crashing sounds that “you’re not supposed to be hearing,” Imholt said.

“Those noises were more than likely the boat being punctured by the rocks,” he said.

The boat hit a seawall south of Seaview Avenue, after drifting about 300 yards to the west. As soon as the crew reached the deck, the boat listed.

Skipper John Bickford and Imholt rushed to the flying bridge and pulled on emergency survival suits made of neoprene, as the boat tilted to 45 degrees. Two other suits on the boat slid out toward the beach when a third crewman opened the lid of the case. He jumped into the water, grabbed the suits, climbed back aboard, and threw on his suit.

“That probably saved his life,” said Chief Warrant Officer Charles M. Chavtur, head of the U.S. Coast Guard station in Bellingham.

A mayday signal reached the Coast Guard at 5:28 a.m., at the station on the opposite end of the harbor more than a mile to the east.

The Coast Guard launched two 45-foot response boats into 4-foot swells. Meanwhile, the Bergen was getting bashed against the rocks. Planks were popping apart. Imholt and the others were clinging to the guardrail.

One response boat crew — Officer Chavtur; Seaman Kady McCartney, 22; and Fireman Ryan Felder, 20 — took a few different approaches before trying a rescue in the shallow waters.

“With the wind and everything, we didn’t think we could pull it off of the pilings,” Felder said. “So we decided to send us (Felder and McCartney) up to the front, and just kind of bring our bow to the boat, and get each person off as we could.”

Three times they drove up to the Bergen, grabbed onto a member of the crew, and backed away. All of the fishermen were rescued within about five minutes, and by about 7:15 a.m. they were safe at the Coast Guard station.

One fisherman, the man who jumped off to grab the suit, had to be taken to St. Joseph hospital for a foot injury and symptoms of hypothermia.

Power flickered off and on at the Coast Guard station as a reporter spoke with people involved in the rescue.

High winds and waves continued to break the boat apart into the afternoon.

The Bergen had about 1,500 gallons of diesel on board. Seas remained too rough, however, for the state Department of Ecology to try to contain the fuel spill, said Krista Kenner, an Ecology spokeswoman.

In the morning the air near the boat smelled like diesel, and there was a sheen on the rocks, Kenner said. Hours later, boat debris and a sheen of diesel were spotted on Squalicum Beach.

Global Diving and Salvage has been contracted to help with the recovery.

Little Squalicum Beach has been closed temporarily while crews clean up the debris and fuel. People and pets are advised to stay out of the water until the work is done. It wasn’t known late Thursday afternoon when the beach would reopen.

The boat was named for a 13th century capital of Norway. Bergen, the fishing boat, had been outfitted with an auto-baiter, Imholt explained, meaning the work that often takes six guys can be done with three. That way, he said, each crewmember makes more money.

“Unless you end up on the rocks,” he said.

Caleb Hutton: 360-715-2276, @bhamcaleb