‘It’s what we do’: Family of missing fishermen mourn but pledge to keep fishing

 Gerry Cobban Knagin & Deanna Cobban at the Fishermen's Memorial in Kodiak
Gerry Cobban Knagin & Deanna Cobban at the Fishermen's Memorial in Kodiak (KTUU)
Published: Jan. 2, 2020 at 5:50 PM AKST
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Fishing runs deep in the DNA of the Cobban family so they know as well as anyone how dangerous the profession can be.

Four generations of commercial fishermen from the family have fished out of Kodiak. On New Year's Eve, members from two generations were lost when their vessel capsized off of the Alaska Peninsula near Sutwik Island. On Wednesday evening, the Coast Guard called off the search for five of the crew members who weren't located during the initial response.

That's left family members coming to terms with the fact that their loved ones likely won't be coming home.

Gerry Cobban Knagin stands next to the Kodiak Fishermen’s Memorial above the Kodiak Harbor. Her mother’s name was added to the monument in December. Her father’s will be added on Memorial Day.

Now, Cobban Knagin realizes she might see the name of her 61-year-old brother Gary Cobban, Jr., the captain of the Scandies Rose, affixed to the memorial too. His son David Cobban, 30, went missing alongside his father.

Knagin says the Scandies Rose was heading west to go cod fishing for a week before hunting for opilio crab for the rest of the winter in the Bering Sea. They weren't expected back until April or May.

A day after leaving Kodiak for a monthslong voyage, wild weather caused her brother, who has captained a vessel full-time since he was 21, to aim for safe harbor in Yantarni Bay.

Before it was able to get there, something happened that caused the boat to take on water.

Cobban, Jr., made a mayday call around 10:00 p.m. Tuesday, saying that he and six crew were abandoning ship.

“It was very quick,” said Deanna Cobban, the sister and aunt of the two missing fishermen.

Neither knew exactly what happened but they couldn’t speak in more detail, saying it was part of the ongoing investigation. According to the National Weather Service, there was a gale and freezing spray warning in the area at the time of the capsizing. Those are conditions that terrify fishermen, since icing on the mast, rigging, and crab pots and can cause a boat to become top-heavy and overturn.

After the family got the call that the Scandies Rose had sunk, Knagin called the Coast Guard for updates and waited.

Four generations of fishermen means the family has heard hundreds of mayday calls broadcast over high-frequency radio. When they do, they run to write down the messages so that they can pass them on.

David Cobban (left) and Gary Cobban, Jr. (right) in a photo from the spring of 2019. (Photo courtesy of Gerry Cobban Knagin)

“The worst part for me and Deanna is the waiting,” Knagin said.

Even though they are preparing to accept the tragic news about their own family members, Cobban and Knagin say they were glad that two of the fishermen aboard the Scandies Rose were found alive.

John Lawler and Dean Gribble were rescued by the Coast Guard around 2 a.m. on Wednesday morning.

Knagin said she visited the two survivors in the hospital in Kodiak and asked about her brother. “They said the last time they saw him was in the wheelhouse when the boat went down.”

By 9:00 a.m. on New Year’s Day, the family was resigned that Gary Cobban, Jr. had died but they still held out hope for David.

They took Lawler and Gribble back home for food, warm clothes and to call their families. Knagin said the two survivors felt a mixture of emotions: “Stunned, devastated, happy, guilty, conflicted, dazed, not confused but dazed.”

The two men were able to fly home Wednesday evening and are safe with their families according to Knagin.

Earlier in the afternoon, Knagin got a call from the Coast Guard that they were going to suspend the search, the area had seen terrible weather and the chance of survival for the five missing fishermen was slim.

The family is grateful for the Coast Guardsmen who put their lives on the line in 20-30 foot seas and 40 mile-per-hour winds.

“They’re putting their life on the line to find our people,” Knagin said. “It’s not just them, it’s also their families. Lord knows what could have happened.”

When the search was suspended, the family had a different sort of hope for nephew David.

“We hope that it went quick and that he didn’t suffer,” Cobban said.

But despite the tragedy, Knagin and Cobban say the loss of two family members won’t stop the family from fishing.

“Nope, we’re a commercial fishing family and that’s what we do, we support our men,” Knagin said. Sons, daughters, brothers and uncles from the Cobban family have all fished. It’s their livelihood and the livelihoods of the crews that fly in to fish.

Knagin’s husband Gary is preparing their ship the Rubicon to catch tanner crabs near Kodiak. “It’s what we do, it’s what we do.”

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