The crew of the Masonic could complete only a single “mayday” call before losing communication. The Coast Guard used the vessel’s Automatic Identification System (AIS) to determine its position near Cape Decision. The Masonic was eventually found aground four miles from Coronation Island.

A helicopter from Air Station Sitka safely rescued all five crew members of a fishing boat, which sank just south of Baranof Island early Tuesday morning (5-7-19).

The Coast Guard credits the high level of preparedness of the fishermen aboard the 70-foot longliner Masonic for the successful outcome of the incident.  They had conducted survival drills — and had a compulsory safety inspection — just hours before their vessel went down.

The Coast Guard received a single “mayday” radio call from the Masonic at about 2:30 a.m. on May 7. Further attempts to reach the Masonic by radio were unsuccessful.

But the vessel was equipped with an “Automatic Identification System” — or AIS — which allowed the Coast Guard to pinpoint its position a few miles south of Cape Decision, about 80 miles from Sitka on the southernmost end of Kiuiu  Island.

Video: Air Station Sitka rescues five from the F/V Masonic, 5-7-19

It’s a required item of equipment on larger boats (over 65 feet) that fish more than three miles offshore, even if they’re not the newest boats in the fleet.

“I felt very bad about the boat. It’s a 1923 wood-hulled old halibut schooner,” said Steve Ramp, the Coast Guard’s commercial fishing vessel safety examiner in Sitka. “Nice, pretty lines on it. It’s well-maintained by the owner. And I feel terrible that the boat encountered this problem, but I feel pretty good that what I do contributed to a safe outcome, by getting the people home safe.”

Ramp had been on board the Masonic that very morning, for a final inspection of the safety equipment on the Masonic — including verifying that the Automatic Identification System was working. Again, it’s a compulsory inspection for larger fishing vessels that work offshore — but it’s not punitive. Ramp gave the Masonic an initial inspection two weeks ago, generated a work list for a few things that needed to be corrected, and issued a Coast Guard decal Monday morning shortly before the vessel departed on its fateful trip.

A helicopter from Air Station Sitka and the cutter Anacapa from Petersburg both responded to the last known location of the Masonic, as reported by the AIS. The cruise ship Oosterdam also diverted to aid in the search. The helicopter located the vessel at 4 a.m. Tuesday in the vicinity of Coronation Island, where it had gone aground.

The five crew members were in a life raft tethered to the stern of the Masonic. All were wearing cold water immersion suits.

Ramp says the crew had practiced putting on the awkward, gumby suits just prior to his inspection, including a new member of the crew for whom this was the first voyage.

“There’s two kinds of people I encounter in exams,” Ramp explained. “Some of them have been in a situation where they had to go in the water, and they believe 100-percent in those survival suit drills, doing them every month. Fire drills, and everything else. And there’s other people for whom nothing bad has ever happened, so they don’t think they’re (drills) are as important. Our program instills in them a legal importance — if not a moral importance — to do the drills and make sure they and their crew are well-trained to deal with emergencies.”

And that well-prepared boat, says Ramp, was the Masonic. The Air Station Sitka helicopter hoisted all five crew members aboard and returned them to Sitka uninjured.

In addition to longlining, the Masonic is permitted as a power troller for salmon. It’s homeported in Sitka and registered to William C. Lewis.

The Coast Guard Marine Safety Detachment is monitoring the sight of the grounded vessel for pollution. The cause of the incident is under investigation. As of press time, Hanson Maritime of Sitka was en route to the location to assess the Masonic for possible salvage.