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A Mystery as Deep as the Ocean

An undamaged fishing trawler is found on the sea floor, its nets full. The captain and crew are lost. And no one can figure out why.

July 09, 2005|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

HUMBOLDT BAY, Calif. — Down, down, down the robotic rover descended into the Pacific Ocean's cold-hearted depths, searching for signs of a 46-foot commercial fishing vessel that had gone missing.

Veteran captain Bill Burchell and his two crewmen aboard the trawler Marian Ann vanished one evening in late September as the trio worked the long nets they used to scour for rock cod 40 miles northwest of this scenic fishing port.

With all three men presumed lost at sea, U.S. Coast Guard investigators in December dispatched the submersible on a longshot search for clues to the ship's fate.

Aboard a U.S. Navy search vessel, they huddled over a computer screen that displayed the robot's-eye view of the ocean below. Slowly, in the gloom at 2,106 feet, as sinewy squid darted from view, a boat's murky form came into focus -- first the towering mast, then the hull beneath it on the sea floor.

The camera focused on the name painted on the port bow.

Marian Ann, it read clearly.

"Seeing that name just took your breath away," recalled Burchell's 42-year-old wife, Suzie Howser, who reviewed the footage later.

"Before that, you imagined they might be drifting, lost, caught in the currents, heading toward Hawaii -- all the images you use to keep up hope they might still be alive. Then you see the video."

Commercial fishing ranks among the deadliest professions in America, with a fatality rate typically five times higher than that of police officers and firefighters. Between 1992 and 2002, more than 630 commercial fishermen died on the job, according to Coast Guard statistics.

As with the crew of the Marian Ann, many lost fishermen are never found. The solitary nature of the enterprise means there are rarely witnesses, and physical clues often sink with the ship.

In this case, the vessel was located. But the discovery, in some ways, deepened the mystery.

The robot found the Marian Ann sitting upright and apparently undamaged, looking, as Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Richard Loster said, "like someone reached down and delicately placed it on the ocean floor."

Why was Burchell, a stickler for safety, unable to rely on such sophisticated equipment as an automatic distress beacon? With cellphones and a radio, why didn't the crew send a mayday? And why was the ship's life raft found floating un-deployed, still in its canister?

Although the weather had been a bit sloppy that night -- with choppy 3-foot seas and a whiff of fog -- it was certainly nothing the crew hadn't handled before.

"Boats get lost at sea," said Wayne Sohrakoff, who docked his boat alongside the Marian Ann at Woodley Island Marina, where 300 colorful boats bear such names as Tempest, Stormbringer and Borrowed Time.

"The mystery here is that it happened to Billy," he said. "He was a prudent mariner."

Bill Burchell, 52, bought the Marian Ann used in 1996, a boat with the builder's wife as its namesake. Burchell didn't give a thought to altering that identity, a nod to old seafaring superstitions: You never eat bananas on a boat. You don't whistle in the wheelhouse or leave port on a Friday. And a boat's moniker never changes.

Along with his two fishermen brothers, Burchell grew up on San Francisco Bay. For years he worked out of Eureka, where he became a respected skipper, a ruddy-faced veteran with a walrus mustache who always talked around a toothpick that dangled from the side of his mouth.

He had been a shrimper and crabber and had also chased salmon from Monterey to Alaska. But after marrying Howser in 2002, he'd turned to net fishing to stay closer to home, taking the Marian Ann offshore on short trips to drag the ocean floor.

His crewmen -- John Mogg and Maurice Alvarado Sr. -- called him "Cappy," and both respected not only Burchell's experience but also his near-fanaticism for safety.

"It was always 'Cappy this and Cappy that,' " recalled Mogg's wife, Jennifer, 41. "Anything Cappy said was the God's truth, the law. They believed it because they believed in him."

Burchell had a weak spot for troubled mariners seeking a second chance. As long as his crew came to work on time, he allowed men's pasts to stay in the past.

That's the way it was with Mogg and Alvarado, best friends and recovering drug addicts, whom Burchell called "the boys."

In 1998, Mogg joined the Marian Ann after a series of onshore construction jobs. The Idaho native quickly got his sea legs, and Burchell began calling him "the Big Show" for the skillful way he handled the crab pots.

At home, the father of five rarely talked about fishing's dangers. Once, while in line to see "The Perfect Storm," Mogg, 41, questioned why he was taking his wife to a movie that so graphically portrayed fishermen lost at sea. He never wanted to give her more reasons to worry. Instead, he waxed about the serenity and abstract beauty of the unyielding ocean. The recovering methamphetamine addict believed that heading out into the open water was a natural high that helped him stay clean.

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