JUNEAU — Morgan Robidou posed next to the bright aluminum hull of his prized new vessel, a 30-foot (9-meter) fishing boat that he could use to take friends, family or tourists out after salmon or halibut in the bountiful waters of southeast Alaska.
“Official boat owner,” he wrote when he posted the photo on social media last October, to congratulatory responses from friends.
Seven months later, the boat he named Awakin — “like a boat waking someone” — was found partially submerged off an island west of Sitka in a tragedy that left Robidou and four customers dead or lost at sea and put a spotlight on the safety of the region’s vibrant charter fishing industry.
“I can’t remember when we had any kind of fatality in our industry, so this is shocking for us,” said Richard Yamada, who sits on various industry boards, including the Alaska Charter Association and the Southeast Alaska Guides Organization. “We’re really curious to see what happened.”
Robidou, 32, was working with Kingfisher Charters, which operates a lodge in Sitka, a small port city on Baranof Island with a backdrop of a stunning volcanic mountain. The region is a legendary fishing destination, with myriad inlets, islands, bays and passages that can offer shelter from wind and waves when the open sea is too rough.
“Sitka is nestled right along the Alaska coast, with the ocean on one side, and the Inside Passage on the other," Kingfisher says on its website. "On days where the weather cooperates we generally head offshore into the ocean, but on days where the winds and waves make the journey less desirable we go fishing in the protected bays and passageways of the inside waters.”
Over Memorial Day weekend, eight members of the Tyau family, from Los Angeles and Hawaii, traveled to Sitka for a three-day trip with Kingfisher, where rates typically run $3,295 per person, according to prices listed on the company's website.
The Tyau clan chartered two boats — the Awakin, captained by Robidou, and another called the Pockets — and set out Friday amid rough conditions. Michael Tyau said his sisters and wife spent the day’s voyage seasick in the two boats’ cabins and skipped Saturday’s trip to recover on land.
When Sunday dawned, their last vacation day before Monday flights home, the women rejoined the boats, which headed to different fishing spots. Aboard the Awakin were Tyau’s sisters, Brandi Tyau, 56, and Danielle Agcaoili, 53, along with Brandi’s partner, Robert Solis, 61, and Danielle’s husband, Maury Agcaoili, 57.
Michael Tyau, who was aboard the Pockets, said the conditions where that boat fished that day did not concern him. He “in no way felt in jeopardy, like this wasn’t safe for us to fish in,” he said.
It’s unclear where the Awakin went or what might have happened to it, but it was last seen near Sitka on Sunday afternoon and was found partially submerged around 7 p.m. Sunday off Low Island, about 10 miles (16 kilometers) west of Sitka, the Coast Guard has said.
Efforts to recover the vessel have been hampered by strong winds and rough seas, including significant tidal currents that hindered the work of divers, but a salvage company was expected to try again Saturday, conditions permitting.
The sisters were found inside the cabin, and Maury Agcaoili’s body was discovered near the boat. Solis and Robidou have not been found, and the Coast Guard called off its search late Monday after covering 825 square miles (2,100 square kilometers) in more than 20 hours.
There was a small craft advisory in the area where the boat was found Sunday, warning mariners of roughly 17 mph (27 kph) winds and 10-foot (3-meter) seas with rain during the day and slightly stronger winds and similarly high seas later in the day, said Pete Boyd, a National Weather Service meteorologist.
In addition to potentially rough seas and high winds, the area features rocks that can seemingly rise even from deep water, posing hazards to boats.
Yamada speculated that Robidou apparently did not have time to make a mayday call, suggesting that a rogue wave could have suddenly flipped the boat.
Kingfisher owner Seth Bone has been in the business for at least 40 years and is well-known and reputable, Yamada said.
Kingfisher Charters has declined to respond to questions outside a statement released Wednesday saying the company is “devastated by the loss of the guests and captain of the Awakin” and is fully cooperating with an investigation it hopes “furnishes answers to the questions as to how it occurred.”
Yamada owns a lodge in Juneau, Alaska. Some businesses, like his, own all their fishing vessels, while others, like Kingfisher, contract with independent boat owners.
It takes serious effort to get a captain’s license, Yamada said, and the process involves an exam covering navigation and safety as well as 360 days of experience on the water. Because you can’t be on the water year-round in Alaska, it usually takes three summers, he said.
“It’s not as if you just come off the street and get a license," Yamada said. "It takes some time.”
A license has to be renewed every five years.
Given the vast numbers of people who go out on charter boats in southeast Alaska every late spring to fall, the lack of prior accidents in the industry indicates it has a good safety record, said Michael Schneider, an Anchorage, Alaska, personal injury attorney who litigates fishing accidents.
That said, he added: "People need to know going in that it’s the real deal up here. The water is deep and cold and bad things can happen. And when they do, they typically happen very, very quickly.”
Robidou had been fishing for several years, according to posts and comments on his social media pages. One said he had previously captained a different boat for Kingfisher Charters. Robidou’s family did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Robidou was “the nicest, quietest, friendliest young fellow you’ve ever seen,” said Thad Poulson, editor of the Daily Sitka Sentinel newspaper, where Robidou once worked as a press operator.