Danger and death in the south's cruel seas

16:00, Jan 13 2012
Insung No 1 survivors
RELIEVED: Survivors from the ill-fated Insung No 1 and crew aboard the Insung No 7 as it arrived in Bluff.

A South Korean fishing boat capsized in the Ross Sea in December 2010, killing half its crew. DEIDRE MUSSEN has obtained a South Korean report into the tragedy.

The remote Southern Ocean is a cruel place for a ship to capsize.

Freezing waters will kill people quickly, if the shock does not stop your heart immediately.

Insung No 1 survivors
ON DRY GROUND: People involved in the Invercargill debriefing of the survivors of the Insung No 1 Korean ship, which sunk in the Southern ocean on December 13, 2010.

Only half the 42-strong multinational crew on the South Korean longline toothfishing boat Insung No1 survived after it suddenly sank on December 13, 2010, about 1000 nautical miles (1850 kilometres) north of McMurdo Station in the Ross Sea.

A day later, Rescue Co-ordination Centre New Zealand said survival times for missing crew members in such icy water would have been short, and it called off the search.

"The medical advice is that those who did not suffer cardiac arrest on entering the water would likely be unconscious after one hour, and unable to be resuscitated after two hours," mission co-ordinator Dave Wilson said at the time.

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"Unfortunately, the Southern Ocean is an extremely unforgiving environment."

He said the boat sank quickly and the crew had to abandon ship without time to don emergency gear.

This week, The Press obtained a report into the tragedy, which showed the odds were stacked against the men's survival if disaster struck, and raised questions about toothfishing controls in the Ross Sea.

South Korean delegates lodged the report at last October's annual meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), which controls fishing in the Southern Ocean.

It blamed several safety failings, revealing that the Insung No1 capsized after three-metre waves hit its starboard side, flooding the upper deck through its open net-hauler shutter, where fishing nets were pulled in.

"As the water flew in, the vessel began to be tilted to the right and by the time the gear stowage and engine room were submerged, the vessel lost its stability and capsized," the report said.

Language barriers between the multinational crew members also harmed their survival chances.

The boat had 40 crew and two observers from six countries – South Korea, China, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Russia. This made swift and efficient communication between them difficult, the report said.

Many were hired through six agencies and the boat's owner, Insung Corporation, had only partial knowledge of their names and nationalities.

The ship's safety guidebook was written only in Korean; emergency and lifeboat instructions were only in Korean and English.

"This left the crew unprepared for accidents like this one," the report said.

The boat-master's response was insufficient once crew warned him at 6am that the 58-metre boat was rolling and pitching in rough seas, with water coming in through the net-hauler opening.

He failed to close the opening to stop more water flowing in, and did not check that the electric water pump was properly functioning. At the time of the accident, the pump did not work.

Instead, the master ordered the crew to move fuel from the starboard to port side to rebalance the boat, but it failed to help.

Within 20 minutes, the ship was significantly tilting starboard (to the right). The master turned its direction to the right so the bow faced the wind and waves.

Unfortunately, it made the Insung tilt even faster to the right and it capsized from the stern about 6.25am, less than half an hour from the first warning, the report said.

"It is considered that these harsh weather conditions made it difficult for the master and crew members to effectively deal with the situation," it said.

"Also, the water temperature at the time of the accident was between 0 and -1 degree Celsius, freezing enough to cause hypothermia for the victims."

The South Korean longliner Hongjin 707 was nearby and immediately went to the stricken boat's rescue, plucking 11 crew members from two lifeboats, and nine men, plus one Russian observer, from the water.

"Among the 42 people, five crew members lost their lives and 16 (including the vessel master and a South Korean observer) are still missing," the report said.

Its numbers were at odds with figures from Rescue Co-ordination Centre New Zealand, which said 22 people died after the boat sank, with five bodies retrieved and 17 crew missing.

Among Korea Maritime Safety tribunal recommendations were that all boats in the Southern Ocean should be fully prepared for harsh weather "since high waves and heavy winds in the area often cause vessels to roll and pitch", the report said.

All shutters on the sides of boats should be tightly closed when not operating and safety-related materials should be written in languages so all crew members could understand it.

Though it was unclear how the rescue unfolded, the recommendations said victims in the water should take priority over those on boats "since cold water can easily cause hypothermia".

New Zealand's Chief Coroner, Judge Neil MacLean, was still investigating the men's deaths, a spokesman for the chief coroner's office said. It had yet to be decided whether a coroner's hearing would be held.

The spokesman said an inquest into the deaths of six crewmen on the South Korean-flagged fishing boat Oyang 70 was expected to go ahead by the middle of this year.

In August 18, 2010, the ship, chartered by New Zealand company Southern Storm Fishing, sank about 750km east of Dunedin. Rescue boats saved 45 crew, but three Indonesian crew drowned and its South Korean captain, plus two other Indonesians, were missing, presumed dead.

On Wednesday, the South Korean toothfish longliner Jeong Woo 2's accommodation block ignited in the Ross Sea, killing three Vietnamese crew and injuring seven others, including three with serious burns.

The 37 survivors were rescued by toothfishing boats near the site 600km north-northeast of McMurdo Station on Wednesday.

Four weeks ago, the Russian fishing boat Sparta was stranded in the Ross Sea after it struck submerged ice and holed its hull.

It was stuck there for 12 days while repairs were made and it arrived at Port Nelson last Tuesday.

For the year starting last December 1, 29 boats from nine countries were licensed to catch Patagonian or Antarctic toothfish in waters covered by the convention, including seven New Zealand boats.

The Press