Alfred, a 70-year-old respected lifelong fisherman, was a former chief of the Namgis First Nation in Alert Bay in northern Vancouver, BC. He was a life-long commercial fisherman and at one time skipper of his own vessel. His wife reportedly had repeatedly asked Alfred to stop fishing, but he wanted to help out his friends.
Both Alfred and the captain and crew were experienced fishermen and were fishing for herring when the accident happened.
EPIRB Alert – But No Position
First indications that the Westisle was in trouble came at about 11 p.m., when an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) from the boat triggered an alert at the Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Victoria. The beacons are designed to go off automatically when they come in contact with water.
Unfortunately the unit did not broadcast their location, something that wasn’t known until one of the self-rescued crew members made a call from a pay phone on shore.
Paul Mottershead, with Nanaimo BC Coast Guard Auxiliary 27, said they were called out at about 11:40 p.m. and it was snowing heavily. A Hovercraft, a Buffalo aircraft and Cormorant helicopter from 442 Search and Rescue Squadron in Comox and a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter from Port Angeles were also deployed in the rescue effort. He said it was a rough night to be on the water and, "it was just about zero-visibility with very high seas," he said.
Alfred was clinging to the hull
Alfred, dressed in yellow rain gear, had been seen clinging to the hull, but the survivors lost sight of him and, in the severe conditions, had to give up their efforts. Conditions were too rough for the Coast Guard to search effectively and they ended their effort after five hours.
Albert's body was located Tuesday morning by a Cormorant helicopter on the shore of Mudge Island.
Ship in trouble before
The capsizing has triggered at least four investigations, including ones by the Transportation Safety Board, the RCMP, the B.C. Coroners Service and the Canadian Fishing Company (Canfisco), which owned the Westisle.
Rob Morley, Canfisco's vice-president of human resources, said the Westisle was conducting a food herring fishery in Pylades Channel when it ran into trouble. He said the vessel, which was built in 1981, experienced problems during last year's roe herring season when it accumulated water on its deck.
The problem was solved before the vessel could capsize, he said, and it wasn't reported to the Transportation Safety Board. But the TSB has investigated at least two other incidents involving the Westisle, including one in 1999 when it nearly capsized off Cape Beale, off the west coast of Vancouver Island.
The seiner was also involved in a collision with an empty barge in 1997.
In both incidents the vessel was owned by B.C. Packers Ltd, which later sold it to Canfisco. Morley said there is no indication at this time that the vessel's construction had anything to do with Monday night's disaster.