National Fisherman

Experience, integrity of repairs are crucial to survival at sea

Based on U.S. Coast Guard reports

On the morning of Sunday, Jan. 23, 2000, a 61-foot commercial fishing vessel set out from Portland, Maine, with a crew of three for a three- to four-day fishing trip for multispecies groundfish in the Gulf of Maine. The voyage was uneventful until they encountered rough weather on Tuesday morning, Jan. 25. The captain of the vessel decided to cut the trip short and head back to Portland because of weather predictions and building seas.

At approximately 4 p.m. that day, the lazarette bilge alarm sounded. The captain energized the lazarette bilge pump, and the alarm condition cleared. About five minutes later, the same alarm sounded and the captain again energized pumps, but the alarm did not clear this time.

The captain and crew sensed the vessel was behaving as if the stern were flooding, and the captain turned the vessel down-sea. Once heading with the sea, waves began to carry over the stern and onto the deck, occasionally allowing downflooding into the engine room and the accommodations house. The crew worked to clear the deck freeing ports but soon realized the vessel was in danger of capsizing.

The captain and crew quickly changed their efforts toward abandoning the vessel. They donned survival suits, but before they could deploy the life raft, the vessel capsized. Only one member of the crew fully donned his suit, but he was caught under the vessel as it rolled, and he was never seen again. For some reason, the captain had difficulty getting his left arm in the suit and could not don it properly. This left him exposed to the conditions. Overcome by the elements, the captain experienced a shock response known as stage 1 of cold-water immersion. He drowned only a few minutes after entering the water. The third crew member also had difficulty donning his suit. His bulky hooded sweatshirt prevented him from getting on the hood of the survival suit. He was exposed to the elements but was able to hold onto the vessel's EPIRB until help came.

Approximately three hours later, the Coast Guard rescued him. He was treated for mild hypothermia in Portsmouth, N.H., and released later that evening. The captain's body was located and recovered the next day.

Lessons learned
As with most casualties, a number of factors contributed to this event. The lack of maintenance knowledge, stability, watertight integrity and crew preparedness exacerbated the initial event. Had these areas been addressed early, two more fishermen may still be fishing today.

Experts attributed the casualty to a structural failure of the rudder port tube, a part that was among those modified just prior to the voyage. When the rudder port fitting was reconstructed, it was augmented with higher power controls designed to increase its structural load. Unfortunately, this modification simultaneously reduced the overall structural integrity of the part.

When the vessel encountered the rough sea conditions, the rudder port fitting failed, allowing seawater to flood the lazarette space. Although the flooded area was equipped with a watertight plate, the plate was not secured properly, allowing water to propagate throughout the rest of the vessel. The vessel may have been able to maintain stability and avoid capsizing had the plate been secured.

Knowledge of stability and watertight integrity issues is paramount. Without a set of guidelines or regulations to outline stability or watertight integrity requirements during vessel modifications, the owner was free to choose the type of repairs he wanted. Without a full understanding of how the repairs could affect the vessel's watertight integrity or seeking professional assistance, he chose the less expensive repair rather than the one that was considered sounder and safer.

Even without the rudder repair, the vessel was already considered at risk by the Coast Guard. The vessel was originally a shrimp boat for the Gulf of Mexico and exhibited some of the known risk factors similar to other vessels from that region that migrated to the New England area. The local Coast Guard had contacted the captain of the vessel numerous times in attempts to offer a voluntary dockside exam. The vessel's last voluntary dockside exam had been in February 1994, when 14 deficiencies were noted. Since that exam, the captain had declined any Coast Guard assistance.

Preparedness of the crew is vital in an emergency. Time is crucial, so actions need to be instinctive. Neither the captain nor the surviving crew member was able to completely don the survival suit. The survivor was prevented from completely donning his suit because of the binding on his hooded sweatshirt. Had he engaged in drills before the accident, he might have been aware that the bulky sweatshirt and its binding could cause a problem.

Where mariners must rely on their own experiences, knowledge is the tool that can guide them safely through their perilous work. Mariners must be cognizant of and eliminate potential sources of flooding, ensure that repairs and modifications made to their vessel are done properly, and consult with a professional when appropriate. Continued safety efforts on the part of both Coast Guard and industry can prevent casualties.

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