National Fisherman

Practice and quick thinking saves crew off Ketchikan

A quick pace is nothing new to most fishing crews, and it doesn't take an experienced fisherman long to get the rhythm and routine of a new boat. If you know your safety and lifesaving equipment as well as you know your fishing gear, you will be able to respond properly during an emergency and dramatically increase your chances of survival.

A training course or emergency drills conducted onboard your vessel will improve your knowledge of safety and survival equipment, proper procedures to follow in emergency situations, and hands-on use of personal safety and lifesaving equipment.

Having the right equipment, knowing what to do, and responding quickly helped one captain and crew abandon their stricken vessel and get rescued in short order.

In the Clarence Strait off Ratz Harbor, northwest of Ketchikan, Alaska, in late July 2002 at approximately 2:45 a.m., a 100-foot-long steel vessel was operating as a tender. While transiting the strait, it grounded or struck a submerged object. The resulting severe hull damage caused uncontrollable flooding, and the tender sank bow first within 15 minutes.

The captain had fallen asleep at the helm, but the collision was hard enough to awaken him and throw him to the deck. The collision knocked the forward generator offline, so the vessel lost propulsion and electrical power. The captain located the emergency flashlight and sent out a mayday call. As the captain started down from the wheelhouse, the two crew members were coming up from the berthing area. They were instructed to get dressed and muster in the wheelhouse.

The captain then proceeded to start the aft generator and assess the damage. Though he started the generator, the vessel was down by the bow and the fore-to-aft passageway was already flooding. The captain then returned to the wheelhouse and instructed the crew to gather the survival gear and the life raft, place them in a skiff kept on deck and then don their immersion suits. He again checked the progression of the flooding, then directed the crew to launch the skiff because nothing else could be done with the bow submerged. After donning his immersion suit, the captain jumped into the skiff as the damaged fishing vessel sank.

With everyone safely in the skiff, the captain used a hand-held radio from the survival pack to make a second mayday call. Information about the crew and their location was passed on to the Coast Guard. The captain was informed of a tugboat and a cruise ship in the area. By that time, he could see lights, and he fired a parachute flare to indicate his location. The cruise ship rescued them and transported them to Ketchikan. The tugboat retrieved the skiff for later return to the captain.

Lessons learned

There is no need to dwell on the cause of the vessel loss other than to reiterate that the person in control of the vessel must remain alert and be aware of his surroundings. Fatigue can easily overtake an individual standing watch alone at night. The person must also know his track line, monitor the water depth, and watch out for other vessels.

In this case, let's look at what went well and why the crew survived. First, the captain and crew responded quickly after the vessel was holed. The captain reacted to the situation and made a mayday call immediately. He assessed the damage and saw that they would not be able to save the vessel, so he ordered preparations to abandon it. Fortunately, they had several precious minutes to take action.

The captain and crew donned survival suits to protect themselves from possible exposure, since they were evacuating the vessel. Although it appears the suits were not needed, they were prepared to enter the cold water. Knowing how to don your survival gear quickly is critical.

They retrieved the vessel's survival pack and life raft and placed them in the skiff before deploying it. Communications equipment and distress signaling devices were included in the equipment they took with them. After the vessel sank and they were aboard the skiff, the captain radioed the Coast Guard for assistance and signaled the approaching vessels that rescued them. Knowing how to communicate your emergency and your location and signal your rescuers will get you recovered more quickly.

It also appears the captain and crew completed safety orientations, conducted emergency drills, and received safety training, because their response to the emergency was orderly, timely and without further incident. The captain had completed a drill instructor training course through the North Pacific Fishing Vessel Owners' Association a few years before the incident occurred. Because the captain knew how to conduct drills and likely carried them out on his vessel as required, he and his crew were able to react quickly to the emergency, avoid injury or exposure, and get rescued quickly.

All things considered, this casualty had a happy ending. The captain and crew survived to fish another day. If you prepare yourself for various emergencies and contingencies through safety and survival awareness training, complete safety orientations aboard your vessel, participate in emergency drills on your vessel, you, too, can significantly increase your chances of surviving a casualty. The more you train, the more routine but immediate your response will be in an emergency.

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