NEWBURYPORT - A yearlong probe into the sinking of the Newburyport-based Lady Luck and deaths of its two crewmen reveals that it sank so rapidly after capsizing that the men aboard had no time to access lifesaving equipment, a U.S. Coast Guard report released yesterday said.
The report said the boat likely capsized as a result of water on its deck and possibly the position of its reels, which made the Lady Luck, already a relatively unstable vessel, so unstable it capsized. The 52-foot steel-hulled dragger sank about 30 miles southeast of Portland, Maine, in water more than 500 feet deep.
Since there were neither survivors nor eyewitnesses, exactly what happened to the Lady Luck and its crew - Capt. Sean Cone, 24, a North Andover native, and Dan Miller, 21, of North Hampton, N.H - will never be completely known, said Capt. Jim Rendon of Sector Northern New England.
"We won't really ever know what happened, but it could have been a combination of things that led to the capsize," Rendon said during a press conference yesterday afternoon. "This investigation is just a stark reminder of how dangerous commercial fishing is and the environment which it operates in. We want to learn the best we can from this and share with other fishermen what we learn."
Coast Guard officials yesterday released a 23-page report outlining the investigation and held a press conference at the Sector Northern New England headquarters in South Portland, Maine.
The sinking occurred in the early morning hours of Feb. 1 last year, about three and a half hours after the boat had left Portland to return to Newburyport. The Lady Luck had docked in Portland while fishing for shrimp and had loaded 6 tons of ice into its holds just hours before departing.
Coast Guard investigators used a remote-controlled video camera to photograph the wreck. The video found no sign of "catastrophic" damage, showed the boat's fishing nets stowed away and found the life raft at the bottom of the ocean, deployed but still attached to the vessel.
The most likely cause is capsizing from water on deck that made the boat unstable, Rendon said. The Coast Guard investigated two other possibilities, including a collision with another boat and flooding of the boat's engine room.
Both of those, however, were considered very unlikely after the investigation.
Coast Guard officials questioned boats in the area at the time and found the closest one was 12 nautical miles from the Lady Luck at the time it sank. Flooding is dismissed, the report says, because the boat would have capsized much more slowly and given time for crewmen to access lifesaving equipment and send out a call for help.
Cone and Miller were on the way back from Portland to the North Shore when the boat went missing. An emergency beacon that detached from the boat was picked up by the Coast Guard at 2:15 a.m. on Feb. 1.
After a 40-hour search that covered 8,140 square miles, all rescuers found was debris, an oil slick and the beacon. The two men aboard were never recovered.
Despite his age, Cone was an experienced fisherman, owning two fishing vessels and working as a crewman for years on several ships. According to the Coast Guard report, Cone had spent three years on the Lady Luck, and Miller had 18 months experience on the vessel.
To better understand the craft's stability, the Coast Guard utilized a computer-aided model. The model showed that even a limited amount of water - an inch - on the Lady Luck's deck caused a model to tilt 5 degrees. With 3.5 inches of water on the deck, the model showed the bulwarks submerging, which at an angle of 25 degrees would have capsized the boat.
"We view the sinking as a very rapid event," Rendon said. "Most likely the cause was capsizing from rapid loss of stability."
The former owner of the Lady Luck, whose name was blacked out in the report, told officials that the boat "was not 'snappy' as far as righting moment, meaning that the vessel righted itself slower than other vessels that he was familiar with," the report stated.
Earlier news reports identified the former owner as Leonard Young, a Rockport resident and native of Mount Desert Island in Maine who sold the Lady Luck to Cone in March 2004.
Rendon said the Lady Luck also had very low freeboard compared to similar vessels, which means waves would have an easier time getting onto the deck. He said there is also the possibility that the freeing ports, which allow water to drain from the deck, may have been closed.
Another possible reason the boat was rendered unstable, both the report and officials said, was the position of the reels - used to haul fishing nets - on the ship.
The report said that Cone installed a second net reel after purchasing the Lady Luck. The original reel was also moved aft, "further altering the original stability characteristics of the vessel."
"The second reel did decrease the overall intact stability characteristics to some unknown degree as this weight was certainly above the vessel's vertical center of gravity," the report states.
Praise for Coast Guard
Glenn Miller, Dan Miller's father, described the close of the investigation as "another phase of the whole process." He said since his son's death, they've had to work through many things in the past year.
Since Dan Miller was lost at sea and no body was recovered, one of the things Glenn Miller and his family had to do was go before a judge and show evidence that a death occurred before the judge can order the medical examiner to issue a death certificate.
"This is not a normal loss of a person," Glenn Miller said.
Glenn Miller praised the Coast Guard for the effort officials put forth to try to find a reason for the sinking of the Lady Luck.
"They went over and above in their efforts to come up with a most-plausible theory," he said, "because we are never going to know what really happened."
Glenn Miller said there have been many in the community who have come forward with support for his family, including Dan Miller's son. In North Hampton, the community hosted a golf tournament to raise money to help raise the son. In Newburyport, a local fisherman made and put up a bronze plaque in Cone's and Miller's honor near the Harbormaster's office.
Also, the surfing community, which Dan Miller was involved in, performed a "paddle out." About 70 to 80 surfers paddled out into the ocean, formed a circle and threw a wreath into the water in Dan Miller's memory.
"It is kind of a surfer's ritual," Glenn Miller said. "You could hear them hooting and chanting."
The Lady Luck
Went missing: Early morning hours of Feb. 1, 2007
Aboard: Sean Cone of North Andover; Dan Miller of North Hampton, N.H.
Found: 30 miles southeast of Portland in 500 feet of water
Reason for sinking: rapid capsizing likely from water on deck
Home port: Newburyport
Gross Tons: 58
Length: 52.3 feet
Breadth: 16 feet
Depth: 10 feet
Hull design: offshore, stern trawler
Hull material: steel
Propulsion: single diesel, 350 horse power
Build date: 1985