NEWPORT — The widow of Toledo fisherman Josh Porter has painted for investigators a picture of a frustrated crewman battling an incompetent captain in the days and hours leading up to the sinking of the Mary B II.
Porter, the only one of three men aboard the crab boat to not have drugs in his system, discussed with his wife drug and alcohol use on the boat. Caught in a financial squeeze, he stayed with an operation he knew wasn’t safe.
"He said, this guy is going to hurt someone," Denise Porter told Coast Guard investigators at a multi-day hearing on Wednesday. "Every time we talked about it was like, 'I have bills to pay. If we get this first pick I'll be on to the next boat and everything will be okay.'"
Porter told his wife he was angered by a trip departure that was delayed when Captain Stephen Biernacki waited to buy alcohol for the trip.
A text from Porter to his wife detailed how the boat ran aground in the harbor, loaded with pots, as it prepared to set gear.
"Love you babe be safe," she responded by text.
"Scarey," he replied.
Denise Porter had fished at sea with her husband for years and remembered him being safety-conscious, doing man-overboard drills at sea and insisting she take survival training because she didn’t swim well.
In the lead-up to the sinking, Porter vented to his wife about the gear being rigged incorrectly and second-guessed Biernacki's decisions related to the tide. Porter discovered Biernacki did not know how to use the boat's electronic plotter and offered to show him how, only to have Biernacki scream at him and tell him to get back on deck, the wife recounted.
"That's when Josh said, 'I only got a couple more days on this boat and I'm done.'"
As the weather on the evening of Jan. 8 the sinking worsened, Porter, an experienced fisherman who worked and operated multiple Newport boats during his career, sent a string of texts detailing how he was butting heads with the captain, trying to get him to understand that conditions were becoming serious. In a call to his wife, he confessed to being frightened by his circumstances and the savagery of the building storm.
In what would be one of the final communications between the couple, Porter gave his wife directions for where to watch the boat return to harbor.
"It's getting really big... The Coast Guard said the Last Straw had trouble getting across," Porter wrote. "I'm putting on my lifejacket."
"Don't stress out," Porter assured her. "The Coast Guard is going to be right here."
The fisherman's wife headed for the bar and received a last text from Porter as flares lit up the harbor: "WTF."
"I saw the helicopter and I knew I'd never talk to him again."