By Chris Roberts
By Joe Eskenazi
By Albert Samaha
By Mike Billings
By Rachel Swan
By Erin Sherbert
By Joe Eskenazi
By Albert Samaha
Meanwhile, other of the report's findings that seemed to impugn the professionalism of the two dead fishermen dismayed and upset their families. For instance, it contains the "rumor" that the third Relentless crew member had refused to make the trip because he believed the boat to be unsafe. Pennisi's friends and relatives say that contention is absurd, and that the former crew member himself told Coast Guard investigators it wasn't true.
The report suggests that "sleep fatigue would have definitely been a detriment to the safety of the only two persons aboard" the Relentless. And even though Pennisi's boat had passed a safety inspection only a month before it sank, the report cited problems with past inspections of other boats belonging to Rowdy Pennisi's father and brothers to imply, without saying so directly, that he may have operated the Relentless under less-than-safe conditions.
The uninflated life raft recovered by the search team had part of the line that attaches the life raft to the boat, called a sea-painter, wrapped around it, which investigators say may have prevented the raft from inflating. Although there is no evidence to suggest that the life raft would have done the men any good if a large ship rammed them with little or no warning, the report nonetheless posits that "the crew's apparent unfamiliarity with correct installation and maintenance of key lifesaving equipment may have cost them their lives."
Wheatley, the Coast Guard's senior investigator, says the report reflects the "best available information" for a tragedy about which no one may ever know the precise cause. Acknowledging the "strong views" held by relatives of the two men about the Bum Chin's suspected involvement, he says, "I don't think the Coast Guard shared those views necessarily. It was one of the things we looked at. But because we couldn't absolutely confirm or absolutely deny, we left it as an unknown."
Brodsky, the maritime attorney, holds a different view.
He calls it "incomprehensible" that the Coast Guard "didn't probe more deeply into a potentially criminal incident" involving the Relentless. "You had an experienced captain in Rowdy Pennisi, with the necessary radio equipment to issue distress calls, and the necessary equipment to abandon ship, and yet there was no Mayday," Brodsky says. "In my view, the U.S. Coast Guard, in disregard of all of that, did not take the necessary steps to determine whether or not a criminal offense occurred."
Another person unsatisfied with the inquiry was Congressman Sam Farr (D-Salinas), whose district includes Monterey, and who had known Pennisi and his relatives personally.
Last January, the congressman sat in on a meeting arranged between Coast Guard officials and several Pennisi relatives, including Rowdy's father, stepmother, and brother, John. "The congressman felt that the [Coast Guard] report did perhaps go out of its way to cast Rowdy and Mr. Odom in a bad light; that was his take," says Alec Arago, an aide to Farr. "He wasn't very impressed with it."
In June, as the result of Farr's involvement, a research vessel scheduled to do mapping of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, within which the Relentless went down, spent parts of five days combing the ocean floor in the area where the wreckage is believed to be.
The vessel, the McArthur II, is a converted naval surveillance ship that belongs to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and whose home port is Seattle. It is equipped with sophisticated side-scan sonar equipment capable of locating large objects on the ocean floor. Since it was scheduled to do the mapping anyway, Farr's office arranged to have the project begin near the spot where the Relentless is thought to lie in about 250 to 300 feet of water.
Grieving relatives of the two men have pinned their hopes on finding the wreckage to attain closure in the tragedy, something they say isn't unreasonable, especially since the Navy was able to locate the Marian Ann in 2,100 feet of water. The Navy, however, has thus far not responded to repeated requests on behalf of the Pennisis and Odoms to take up the search for the Relentless. From a legal standpoint, recovery of paint samples and other forensic evidence could be pivotal in determining whether the Bum Chin or some other vessel may have collided with the boat.
But the June effort was tantalizingly inconclusive.
Although the McArthur II's sonar detected a large metal object on the seabed that could have been the Relentless, the images it obtained were far from conclusive, says William J. Douros, regional director of the National Marine Sanctuary Program, who oversees three sanctuaries off the California coast. He says scientists aboard the vessel were unable to achieve enough clarity in the murky water to identify what the object they detected may have been, noting that the seabed in the general area is full of shipwrecks and other debris.
"There was no way to determine that what they detected was even a boat," Douros said, adding that one possibility is that the object in question was one of an estimated 15 shipping containers (variously filled with truck tires, hospital beds, and plastic hair clips, among other things) known to have toppled from a Taiwanese freighter several years ago. He says that the effort was not a dedicated search for the Relentless, but a byproduct of the McArthur II's ordinary duties, and that there were no plans to return to the area to pursue the search. "Looking for shipwrecks, unfortunately, is outside our mandate," he says.