Sun, Apr 08, 2018 - Page 5 News List

Fisherman saves seven as Hawaiian boat sinks


Fisherman Khanh Huynh stands aboard commercial fishing vessel Commander in Honolulu on March 29.

Photo: AP

Khanh Huynh has been a commercial fisherman since he was 12 years old. For the past six years, he has been living on a fishing boat in Hawaii, catching premium ahi tuna for some of the world’s most discerning consumers.

The 28-year-old fisherman from outside Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, recently saved the lives of two Americans and helped rescue five others after the fishing vessel he was working on sank hundreds of kilometers off Hawaii’s Big Island.

However, Huynh is not the captain. He works 12 to 20 hour days for less than US$10,000 a year in one of the most dangerous occupations. It is illegal for Huynh to act as the master of a commercial vessel in US waters because he is not a US citizen, but the American captain, who was supposed to be in charge of the Princess Hawaii, had never worked a longline vessel in the Pacific Ocean before.

A US federal observer, who was one of eight people on the boat, said the Vietnamese worker was in charge of the vessel from the time it left port to when it sank.

“I never once saw the American captain make any attempt to operate the vessel, to issue any commands, directions or anything to make the vessel more seaworthy, more stable,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration observer Steve Dysart said. “I only saw him in his bunk.”

Ship captain Robert Nicholson declined to comment.

On the Sunday the ship sank, Huynh was working 644km offshore, cleaning the cabin as the crew set about 24km of fishing hooks.

Huynh was hired as a deck hand, but served as the vessel’s de facto captain, Dysart said.

Under a known tactic in federal waters, US captains are sometimes listed as master to comply with law, but do little to run the ship.

No US regulations prohibit foreign workers from standing watch over a boat when the American captain is asleep or otherwise unavailable, but the American aboard is required by law to be in charge of the vessel.

Penalties include hefty fines for ship owners.

Just before noon, the 19m Princess Hawaii started to rock. As ocean swells rolled across the Pacific, it dipped to the waterline, filled with water and started to sink.

In the wheelhouse, Huynh tried to right the ship, but water was already sloshing against the cabin’s windows.

“I rushed to the control cabin, grabbed the steering wheel and tried to turn it, but I couldn’t,” Huynh said. “The boat kept on tilting. It was almost vertical and I fell on the window.”

Huynh grabbed a hammer, smashed the window and escaped.

He then saw five men already in the water.

Still inside the boat were Dysart and Nicholson.

Dysart said he heard Huynh yelling: “Get out, get out, get out.”

Dysart grabbed a life jacket and headed for the only exit, a door at the rear of the vessel.

“I was really worried because when I was heading toward the door, I’m looking out the porthole, and all I see is water,” Dysart said.

Huynh stretched out his hand to grab Dysart.

“He saved two people’s lives, my own included,” Dysart said. “He grabs my arm and literally drags me over this hook box.”

To flee the sinking ship, the observer and captain had to swim underwater, find the doorway and swim back to the surface.

Huynh had already deployed their life raft. He pulled the Americans aboard and the three men rescued the five crew members, fishermen from Vietnam and Kiribati.

Dysart was on the same boat years earlier and thinks changes could have made the vessel unstable, adding that it was listing days earlier as it left Honolulu Harbor.

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