Luck favors the prepared
Repairs on the fly are part of life at sea and work in a highly regulated industry. Any seasoned fisherman has jury-rigged his way through at least a set, if not a trip or a season. However, temporary repairs also tempt fate.
A 60-foot steel-hulled longliner was operating with a crew of four out of Port Arthur, Texas. On the second day out of a 14-day swordfish trip in December, the weather was reported as fair visibility, rain, strong winds and moderate seas.
Around 3:30 p.m., the engineer left the wheelhouse to check on a hydraulic leak. He noticed the vessel's stern riding lower in the water than usual, went to the lazarette and found it was filling with water. He alerted the skipper and crew and got the portable pump to try to dewater the lazarette. The crew was unable to get the pump started. The engine compartment was fitted with an automatic bilge pump, but they did not know if it had engaged. At any rate, it was not keeping up with the progressive flooding.
The skipper and a crewman went back to the wheelhouse, reportedly to make a distress call and retrieve PFDs. Meanwhile, the situation deteriorated. The longliner heeled to port and started taking waves over the side.
The engineer and another crewman climbed onto the starboard side shell. The crewman slipped and plunged into the water, but the engineer got a life ring to him. Seconds later, a wave knocked the engineer overboard. He managed to grab a free-floating poly-ball buoy. The two of them watched as their boat quickly went under. They would not again see the skipper and the other crewman.
The vessel's EPIRB deployed and transmitted the location of approximately 95 nautical miles south of Vermilion Parish, La. The five-person inflatable life raft floated to the surface. But high winds and rough seas swept the raft out of reach. The survivors stayed close together for approximately two hours. As it became dark, however, they became separated and lost sight of each other.
The crewman was eventually rescued by another boat transiting the area that had heard the distress call. A few hours later, the engineer was rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter launched to search the area of the vessel's last reported position and the EPIRB signal location. Both survivors suffered mild hypothermia, fatigue and muscle pain, but were remarkably otherwise uninjured. The skipper and other crewman were never recovered.
During the investigation into the incident, the engineer stated there were two steel-plate patches with rubber gaskets affixed with through-hull bolts on the bottom shell of the lazarette. The patches had been made about two years before the incident.
The engineer didn't recall the vessel striking an object and speculated the flooding could have been caused by unrepaired wastage around the patches.
A safety examination earlier in the year noted that the longliner's general and high-water alarm systems were not operating properly. They were reportedly repaired. However, a functioning high-water alarm should have alerted the crew of water in the lazarette. It was also noted prior to the trip that emergency instruction and drills and safety orientation training were not being documented.
Temporary repairs made to complete a fishing trip and allow a boat to return port should be corrected as soon as possible. Without properly functioning alarms, the skipper and crew are likely to go unaware of problems on the vessel until it is too late to respond and lives are at risk or lost. Readily accessible and properly installed survival equipment makes for a safer and quicker abandon-ship procedure.
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