Sunken boat exposes flaw in communications system by tour operator

© Kyodo News

The mobile phone of the captain of a tour boat that sank off Hokkaido was unreachable during most of its last trip, sources familiar with the case said Saturday, highlighting an apparent failure by the operator of properly managing its communications system.

The finding came as 12 people were still unaccounted for a week after the 19-ton Kazu I went missing in rough waters while sightseeing around the scenic Shiretoko Peninsula.

The finding highlighted a series of flaws in the communications system by the operator Shiretoko Yuransen, including a broken radio antenna at its office on the day of the accident.

It was also found that a Shiretoko Yuransen employee did not know the number of the satellite mobile phone believed to have been kept on the boat, according to the sources.

Three days before the accident, Noriyuki Toyoda, the 54-year-old captain of Kazu I, won approval from a regulator to use his mobile phone rather than the satellite mobile phone on the boat as a means of communication, according to the transport ministry.

The regulator approved the change because Toyoda said the mobile phone would be reachable on the sea, the ministry said.

A call seeking help from the Japan Coast Guard was made using a passenger's mobile phone, sources from the coast guard said. A distress call from the radio on Kazu I was also picked up by another boat operator.

The boat had 26 people aboard in total. So far the bodies of 14 people have been found since contact with the boat was lost on April 23.

The boat was found underwater on Friday, with the coast guard and the Maritime Self-Defense Force continuing the search of the surrounding waters and Kazu I using an underwater camera.

The coast guard is investigating the incident with the operator likely to face charges of professional negligence resulting in death.

Shiretoko Yuransen's owner publicly apologized Wednesday, admitting his decision to give the green light to depart despite the chance of bad weather was inappropriate.