Tour company owner talks on firing captain of sinking boat

There were no serious injuries after a whale-watching boat sank near Juneau Sunday, but the captain of the boat was fired that same day.

“It was a terrible decision to make. Kim’s a good guy and it’s my job to sometimes make terrible decisions,” Dolphin Jet Boat Tours owner Doug Ward said in an interview Tuesday.

Big Red, a Dolphin whale-watching vessel, sank within minutes after hitting a shallow area off Aaron Island Sunday around noon. All 16 passengers and two crew aboard, including captain Kimball Ho, were rescued.

[‘We’re sinking’: Juneau family’s fast actions saves lives at sea]

Ward said Ho worked full time as the skipper of Big Red all summer and had a good track record. It’s his first season working with Dolphin. Ward said letting him go wasn’t easy.

“I’m sure the thing he hit was just underneath the water level. It’s a terrifying nightmare for all of us if you boat around here is to run into something like that. Rocks and reefs that are sticking above the water, you can see. He didn’t run into that,” Ward said. “Our boats only take a foot of water literally when they’re fully going on step. There are no propellers down there, nothing you can rip off at the bottom, so whatever he hit was hard enough and placed in just the wrong spot so it sank a boat that really should not have sunk. Such things happen. The fact that they saved everybody has everything to do with him. That is the fantastic gesture of a good skipper.”

The other crewmember on board was naturalist Mike Clasby, who said he’s worked with Ho a lot this season. Coming from the North Pass vicinity through Favorite Channel, the boat was returning to Auke Bay after a whale-watching trip.

“There’s a rock ledge off of Aaron Island and he hit that; a rock ledge coming off of Aaron Island that was underwater because of high tide,” Clasby said.

High tide was around 12:30 p.m. that day. U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Ryan Butler, Sector Juneau inspections division chief, said the water around that time was “pretty calm.”

“The area where we believe they struck is marked as a shallow area on the chart,” Butler said. The Coast Guard is conducting a preliminary investigation into the sinking.

“During high tide, a lot of these rocks are underwater and during low tide, they’re showing. At the time this occurred, there’s a good possibility there were rocks just directly under the surface that you couldn’t see with your eye, but the chart does show it’s a low spot,” Butler said.

Butler said there is a day board — a marker — in the general area which indicates that “rocks are pretty much always under water, right below the surface.”

Later in the day Sunday, after everyone was rescued and back on shore, Clasby said he and Ho had to write reports for the Coast Guard. They also had time to debrief.

“He told me, ‘I went around the day marker but I didn’t swing wide enough around the corner. The captain is supposed to bring the boat back,’” Clasby said. “He was just shaking his head.”

Clasby said the whole situation is very emotional. He called Ho “a good guy” with no malicious intent, but said Ho made an “error in judgment.”

“He just had that one unfortunate moment of a bad decision,” he said.

Clasby said he understands why Dolphin owner Doug Ward had to let Ho go.

“Because (Ho) knows it and because he did it and because the result could’ve been very tragic and because we don’t ever want that to happen again for anybody, Doug had to make that decision based on his good judgment as an owner. … Doug made the right decision,” Clasby said.”I don’t think he had any choice.”

Efforts by the Empire to reach Ho for comment were unsuccessful.

A Coast Guard inspection could result in a suspension or revocation of a license, a notice of warning, fines or nothing at all, Butler said.

It’s too early to tell, he said.

“We’re still trying to find all the answers.”

• Contact reporter Lisa Phu at 523-2246 or lisa.phu@juneauempire.com.

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