NAHCOTTA — The disappearance of Nahcotta-based crab boat Kelli J and the young father alone at its helm in a mishap on Willapa Bay on Saturday sent the Long Beach Peninsula and the wider West Coast fishing community into mourning.
The search for Kevin Soule and his sunken vessel was still underway Tuesday morning, a U.S. Coast Guard spokesman said. Reports on Sunday that the 43-foot fiberglass hull had been found between Oysterville and Bay Center proved erroneous, Petty Officer 1st Class Levi Read said Tuesday.
The Coast Guard is working with a salvage team and the vessel’s insurer to try to locate the Kelli J using sonar, Read said. The second-largest estuary on the U.S. Pacific Coast, Willapa Bay covers more than 260 square miles and is laced with channels up to 80 feet deep at low tide.
An intense search started Saturday when Soule’s wife Heather reported him overdue at noon from pulling crab pots. The Coast Guard launched air and surface assets, covering a grid of more than 580 square nautical miles, both in the bay and well out into the nearby Pacific Ocean, where the boat might have been swept by the current. The Pacific County Sheriff’s Office checked other marinas around the bay and visible areas of the shoreline Saturday afternoon.
By Sunday morning, searchers had found an oil slick and debris associated with the Kelli J. At 12:33 p.m. Sunday — about a full day after the presumed mishap — the U.S. Coast Guard suspended its search.
“All searches for mariner yielded negative results,” the Coast Guard said on its Twitter feed. “Search has been suspended and efforts are switching to vessel salvage/fuel recovery.”
Although the Dungeness crab fishery is infamously prone to deaths and injuries, Soule’s friends and neighbors were shocked as news spread that he may have lost his life. Crab season is winding down and marine conditions were benign Saturday. Struggling to make sense of what happened, other boat operators on the bay suggested Soule’s vessel may have overturned in the process of winching up a stuck crab pot. However, there is no indication that mandatory automatic safety gear deployed, including an EPIRB beacon that is supposed to send out a location signal when it hits the water.
Hundreds of condolences, prayers and offers of help were registered on social media in the three days following Soule’s disappearance.
“Kevin was an honest good dude, he didn’t deserve this,” his friend Ross Kary wrote. “He loved his daughters and family. I pray for closure for his family. The Coast Guard has found a lillipad of pots and debris. … They have searched everywhere.”
Kevin is married to Heather Unruh Soule, manager of Long Beach KeyBank. The couple have two daughters, ages 10 and 6. The Soules are a well-known multi-generational fishing family on the bay. Kevin’s parents are Ernie and Bonnie Soule of Nahcotta. His only sibling, Brandon, died in 2015 at age 34.
“Kevin was a really good dude. I fished for him with Ross Kary on the Linda out in the ocean one season,” Jerry Matzen wrote. “You couldn’t ask for a nicer guy. He was an all around class act. Fair winds and following seas shipmate.”
“I feel so bad for Kevin and his family. I met Kevin last year when he came to Westport to look at my boat,” said Dan Zeik. “So sorry for the loss of his life and his family’s loss. He was a great man.”
The Peninsula’s Ken Wiegardt hung one of Soule’s crab-pot buoys from his porch light, commenting “This will be up until my friend is brought home. Godspeed Kevin, our community will make sure your family’s taken care of. I don’t have any more words…”
The Kelli J was carrying up 500 gallons of diesel. Global Diving and Salvage has been contracted for cleanup operations, the Coast Guard said. The Washington Department of Ecology said Sunday that it had divers standing by to try to block the vessel’s vents to keep oil from leaking out and to put a tracker on the wreck to make certain it isn’t lost again to the currents once it is found. The bay’s oyster beds and other habitat are highly sensitive to petroleum pollution.
Coast Guard spokesman Read said Tuesday that his agency anticipates that salvage will be made difficult due to swift currents. Willapa Bay largely empties and refills each tide cycle, generating intense water velocities.
The Kelli J, built in 1977, is registered to Shoalwater Seafoods LLC of Long Beach, which is owned by Soule, according to public records.
Watch chinnookobserver.com and our Facebook page for any updates that become available before our next print publication date.