National Fisherman

Caught short

Cutting corners is not always a bad idea, as long as you've weighed carefully what can go wrong if you don't follow standard procedures or the normal route, and can focus on the alternative action without being distracted.

A common shortcut for boats returning to port via Chincoteague Inlet, Va., is to go outside the marked channel across an area known as The Flats. There is usually a groove with 15 feet of water. But outside of this groove, the water can be as shallow as 3 feet.

In the fall of 2006 off Chincoteague, the captain and two-man crew of a 63-foot wooden-hulled scalloper built in 1978 were returning from a trip with a full load. The vessel was 79 gross tons with a draft of 8 feet 8 inches.

The skipper had transited this area numerous times and was following his plotter and reference points on this trip. He was making about 5 knots, and it was about an hour before low tide.

Around this time, one of the crewmen came to the wheelhouse to talk with the skipper about fishing trips and scalloping. The discussion went on for about 10 minutes, and when the skipper checked his references and plotter again, he realized he was off his track. He immediately reduced his speed and changed course. Shortly after, the scalloper grounded in about 4 feet of water.

The vessel was unable to be freed at the next high tide and future salvage efforts were hampered by bad weather and were unsuccessful. The boat was pushed farther ashore until it was left high and dry during low tides. No one was injured.

Lessons learned

With today's economic conditions and the cost of materials and fuel, it is not unreasonable to expect fishermen to scale back wherever possible and use shortcuts. While taking shortcuts is not preferred for safety reasons, we cannot pretend it doesn't happen. So how can you do it safely?

Start with your vessel. Make sure you keep systems and equipment working properly. Know the characteristics of your boat. That includes how it maneuvers and responds and its draft when light or loaded. With this knowledge, the skipper can determine how safe it is to navigate through a shallow or restricted area, considering other factors like tides, currents and chart accuracy for the area.

As a vessel moves through the water, especially shallow water, the draft at the bow tends to increase, called vessel squat. On a large commercial vessel, this can be up to 3 or 4 feet, but a smaller fishing vessel can experience the same effect even though it may only be inches.

Knowing the area's tides and currents is an important factor in determining whether it is safe to transit. Calculating the tides for an area can take less than 30 seconds. Most computer programs only require the date, time and possibly the position of the vessel to compute the tides at any given moment. Also, remember that the phase of the moon affects the tides, causing spring and neap tides that are much higher or lower than normal.

Before determining to cross a restricted area, look over your chart again. When was the area last surveyed? Do the tides and currents affect the contours of the bottom? Is shoaling common in the area? Monitor the water depth frequently in these areas when taking a shortcut.

Focus on navigating when you're in any sort of restricted or hazardous area. The skipper of the scalloper allowed himself to be distracted by a crew member during a critical part of his trip back to port. While they were talking, even for this short period of time, the skipper did not check the plotter or fathometer. Continued use of these devices may have alerted him that he was deviating from the intended track. Regardless of the amount or type of equipment in the wheelhouse, if the operator is inattentive, falls asleep, or does not know how to operate it, it may as well not be there.

Steaming to and from fishing grounds is when most fishing vessel casualties occur. In fact, approximately 45 percent of fishing vessel losses occur while the boats are in transit. Groundings are the third leading cause. And of these cases, no watch, falling asleep at the helm, or inattention to navigation are contributing factors to the loss of the vessel.

No one was injured in this incident, but the catch and vessel were lost. It was a costly shortcut. Be prepared, be aware, and be safe! Visit

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