National Fisherman

When in doubt, notify the Coast Guard

Based on U.S. Coast Guard reports.

Some boat owners delay or avoid general preventative maintenance, are reluctant to inspect and test equipment routinely, or put off minor repair jobs until they become major repair projects. Some may think they don't have time to do the work or can't afford to have it done.

Whatever the reason, failure to maintain your boat and make repairs in a timely manner will eventually affect your ability to head out to the grounds. In the worst of cases, your vessel or a life may be lost. The Coast Guard responds frequently to calls from disabled vessels, vessels taking on water, and sinking vessels. In some cases, the malfunctioning piece of equipment or operating system that causes the problem could have been corrected before the vessel got underway.

Let's take a look at an incident that goes to the heart of maintenance and repairs, and shows what can happen when you don't fix the problem before you go fishing. Fortunately, no one was injured, but the vessel was a total loss and was not salvaged.

At the end of October in 2002, a 34-foot fiberglass vessel out of St. Petersburg, Fla., was on a bottom-fishing trip in the Gulf of Mexico. The skipper had one crew member on board. Late in the evening, the skipper found water leaking around an elbow connection on an exhaust line that was below the waterline. His pumps were able to keep up with the water intrusion so he kept fishing rather than return to port.

Over the next few hours the flooding got worse, and the skipper tried to patch the hole temporarily with a pillow to control the flooding. Although this can be an effective damage control technique, it was unsuccessful in this case. Just before dawn, the high-level bilge alarms sounded. At this point, the vessel's emergency pumps could not keep up with the uncontrolled flooding.

The skipper called a nearby sister vessel via VHF radio for assistance, but not the Coast Guard. He and his mate donned PFDs, entered the water, and swam to the approaching vessel. The stricken vessel sank shortly after. They were lucky there was another vessel in the vicinity to rescue them.

Lessons learned

This vessel loss did not have to happen. The owner reported that the boat had been experiencing the leak prior to the voyage, but the skipper decided to get underway for this fishing trip regardless. A new turbocharger connection to replace the leaking part had been ordered, but it had not been delivered. A wait of two or three days probably would have saved the vessel.

When it was obvious the flooding could not be controlled, the skipper and mate each donned a life vest and swam to the approaching fishing vessel they had called. The pair did not deploy their life raft. They also did not take the EPIRB from the vessel. So, when the vessel sank, the EPIRB floated free and sent a signal.

The Coast Guard received the alert, contacted the owner, and was advised the vessel was underway and fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. The signal plot showed the vessel about 100 nautical miles west of Tampa. With this information and no response to attempts to contact the crew, the Coast Guard launched a C-130 aircraft to search the area for survivors. Upon arriving at the area of the EPIRB signal, the C-130 observed the rescuing vessel and made contact. That crew reported the skipper and crew member from the sunken vessel were on board and safe, so the aircraft returned to base.

Neither skipper contacted the Coast Guard about the incident and safety of the crew. Had the skipper of the stricken vessel called for assistance, the Coast Guard may have been able to deploy and deliver dewatering pumps to keep the flooding under control and allow for temporary repairs so the vessel could get back to port. Because no call was made, the Coast Guard executed an unnecessary taxpayer-funded search and rescue effort. The response also drew on resources that may have been needed in another emergency.

Make sure your vessel will be seaworthy for the trip. Perform necessary maintenance and repairs before getting underway. Coast Guard data shows that approximately 35 percent of all fishing vessel losses result from flooding, and almost 70 percent of those losses are caused by hull or machinery failures.

Practice emergency procedures on your vessel. Response to an emergency should be almost automatic, such as making a mayday call to the Coast Guard, or getting into your life raft and taking the EPIRB with you if you have to abandon ship.

Make sure your vessel is safe, be prepared, complete your safety orientations, practice your drills, and know how to respond properly in an emergency. It's your vessel, and it's your life. When seconds and minutes count, training makes the difference. Visit the Coast Guard's www.fishsafe.info for safety information, references, and guidelines, as well as links to other Web sites.

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