BREAKING: Impaired captain was responsible for at-sea mishaps, possible assault

State parks workers pick up the remnants of the Mary B II the morning after the Jan. 8 wreck that claimed three lives. (Photo by Bret Yager)

NEWPORT — The saga of a fishing captain with meth in his bloodstream and a history of erratic behavior is unfolding at a Coast Guard hearing in Newport, with testimony giving details about the man sleeping at the wheel, using marijuana, displaying intoxication and possibly assaulting another person aboard his boat. Investigators earlier in the week revealed Captain Stephen Biernacki had methamphetamines and alcohol in his system when he died.
Wednesday, a medical examiner told investigators that the level of meth constituted impairment.
"I would term this mariner not fit for duty and certainly not seaworthy," said medical review officer Brian Bourgeois, who specializes in maritime drug tests.
A lineup of witnesses who worked around Biernacki alluded to erratic behavior and other patterns they said pointed to drug and alcohol abuse.
Biernacki was piloting the Mary B II when it capsized in Newport in January and was killed in the accident along with crewmen Josh Porter and James Lacey. Biernacki was arrested in New Jersey in 2014 for allegedly ramming a patrol car while drunk, then assaulting an officer.
Newport fleet owner Ryan Morgan said Biernacki was involved in an altercation in which it sounded like he slapped a woman and cursed at her while piloting the Fishing Vessel Ranger last August, an apparent fight that went out over the boat's radio while at sea. 

"I was in a situation where I was calling the Coast Guard on my own boat," said Morgan, owner of the Ranger.
Morgan also said Biernacki later appeared to be under the influence when he approached Morgan on the dock just before the start of this past crab season to ask about buying a piece of equipment.
"He was very intoxicated," Morgan said. "I told him I was in a hurry and I was leaving."
The South Carolina owner of several fishing boats operated by Biernacki told Coast Guard investigators that Biernacki was in charge of a boat where the entire crew went to sleep and the boat ran aground. 
In a separate incident on another boat belonging to Carl Bjornberg, a crewman triggered an emergency beacon which prompted a Coast Guard response and the firing of Biernacki from his job at the helm.
"I'm not going to have the boat run that way," Bjornberg said, speaking via teleconference from Station Barnegat Light in New Jersey as an investigation into the capsizing of the Mary B II entered its third day.
Bjornberg said Biernacki was a tough and capable fisherman in South Carolina who pushed the envelope at times too hard.
"Sometimes his decisions...it'd get too nasty," Bjornberg said.
Biernacki was known to smoke marijuana, said Bjornberg, who said he did not believe the captain did hard drugs.
"He'd have little problems then he'd go and straighten out and he'd be good," Bjornberg said.
"If someone wanted to smoke pot in their spare time that was fine," he said. "Once in a while he'd smoke some pot, that's all. Other than that, who knows? When you're off the boat, you're off the boat."
Bjornberg said a couple of decades ago Biernacki, 50, went to sleep while his crew cleaned up the boat. The boat then went up on the beach.
His decision to fire Biernacki came after a crewman triggered an emergency locator beacon while at sea. The Coast Guard dropped a swimmer, who went aboard the boat and found everyone asleep. 
"I don't know if they were drinking or whatever," said Bjornberg, who seemed at loss to explain how a crewman triggered the beacon and then fell asleep. "They were fine when they left the dock."
"His employment was over then," he said.
Biernacki once piloted an 80-foot swordfish boat called the Go For It, and was removed from that position after he fished "tough weather" and the crew did not like him. 
"He had an all green crew," Bjornberg said. "I guess they were freaked out. I don't know what went on."
Biernacki, while experienced in East Coast waters, was out of his depth in dealing with the Pacific Ocean in the winter. With 16-foot breaks and southeast gusts to 35 knots — and seas forecast to build to 20 feet — the captain likely had never experienced conditions at that level.
"I can't even imagine that happening here," said Boatswain's Mate Paul Ashley of Station Barnegat Light. "That's something you would see from a Category Three hurricane."

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