Written by Jen Finn
Look lively on watch
Fishing regulations — even those intended to reduce hazards to the fleet — often result in quick turnarounds at the dock on top of long days and nights setting and hauling gear. Adequate sleep is hard to come by for any crew member on any fishing boat, but fatigue and inexperience are two especially deadly factors when it comes to standing watch.
A 92-foot tug towing an empty barge on a 1,000-foot cable was headed northbound for New York approximately six miles off the New Jersey coast. It was early evening and visibility was reduced. He was running all required lights for the conditions and sounding the proper signals. The skipper noticed a radar target about a mile off his port bow and plotted it on a track for collision with the barge. He hailed the vessel numerous times on channels 13 and 16 with no response. He also altered his course to starboard and sounded one prolonged blast to warn the unknown vessel.
A short time later, the skipper felt a vibration through the tow wire and knew he had a collision. He immediately altered his course to come around to assist the unknown vessel. The Coast Guard was notified via VHF radio, and the tug sent a broadcast to vessels in the area.
A 64-foot wooden-hulled scallop dragger with four crew was heading east from Manasquan Inlet. They had returned to port a few hours earlier, off-loaded catch, and reprovisioned for another trip. The crew had been up for about 22 hours. The skipper was at the helm, navigating at about 8 knots in foggy conditions, with proper running lights and sounding fog signals. The radios were on to monitor channels 16 and 66.
At about 4 miles from shore, the skipper used ropes as a makeshift autopilot for his plotted course. He also turned off the fog signals and turned over the helm to a crew member. The crewman at the helm had little or no knowledge of the rules of the road and had only been fishing on the scalloper for about a month. The skipper instructed him to watch the radar, monitor the radio, ensure the makeshift autopilot was holding them on course, and report anything unusual to him. Then he headed to his bunk in the aft section of the wheelhouse.
A short time later, the crewman noticed a blip on the radar but did not report it to the skipper. In another minute or two, he sighted the barge immediately off his starboard side. The impact knocked the crewman out of the wheelhouse. The skipper was knocked out of his bunk and escaped through the wheelhouse as it flipped and the boat sank. The other two crew members were asleep below decks. Their bodies were later recovered. Another fishing boat in the area heard the distress calls and pulled the skipper and crewman from the water then transported them to shore for medical treatment for minor injuries.
The skipper and the crewman of the fishing vessel tested positive for a controlled substance.
The skipper and crewman of the scalloper did not maintain a proper lookout, sound fog signals or follow the rules for vessels in restricted visibility. The crewman should have had more training and experience before taking over the helm, especially under those conditions.
To determine a safe speed for a vessel, consider the visibility, traffic density, vessel maneuverability, background lights (at night), sea state and weather conditions, and draft and water depth.
The crew of the fishing vessel had just returned from a fishing trip and immediately got underway again. They had been working or on watch for 22 hours. It's best to take assistance when tired, operating late at night, or operating in reduced visibility. Fatigue invariably affects your senses and ability to respond, as can controlled substances.
Watch standing requires being aware of your environment and conditions, inside and outside the vessel, including understanding how the electronic equipment on the vessel works and periodically checking that it is working properly.
If you cannot maintain a proper watch, call for someone to help you stay alert or relieve you if they are qualified. In reduced visibility, slow down and get someone to help.
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