National Fisherman

Don't get roped in

Based on U.S. Coast Guard reports

The captain and deckhand of a 45-foot fiberglass lobster boat operating out of Mount Sinai Harbor, N.Y., got underway on the morning of June 24, 2003. Both had worked aboard the vessel for about eight years and had made the trip many times before.

By approximately 10:50 a.m., the traps on one trawl (17 pots, each about 50 pounds) had been hauled and were aboard the boat. The skipper and his helper began to reset the traps. As the vessel steamed ahead, the men placed the first pot overboard and used the momentum of the vessel against the first pot to pull the rest of the traps off the deck through the open transom, one at a time.

The captain stood in the stern to ensure the warps did not get tangled; the deckhand was forward, measuring and banding lobsters at the port side of the bait table, in the center of the wheelhouse. The vessel was on autopilot, steaming between 4 and 8 knots, which the deckhand stated was standard practice. Weather and sea conditions were fair with no evidence of the vessel rolling or pitching, also according to the mate.

At approximately 11 a.m., the helper saw the captain go overboard. He said that he saw line wrapped around the skipper's leg, and as a trap went over, he was pulled over with it. The incident occurred so quickly, the mate recalls, that the captain did not even have time to yell. The skipper was wearing rubber overalls and rubber boots but had not donned any survival gear.

The mate immediately moved the throttle handles into neutral, brought some of the line from the lobster traps to the hauler, and began hauling back on the line. The vessel was still creeping forward as the mate attempted to haul up the line, and the pressure caused the line to snap. The deckhand called 911 on his cell phone, but the master did not survive.

Despite his experience on lobster boats, the mate had had no training on survival equipment or how to respond to emergency situations aboard a boat.

Lessons learned

Getting wrapped in pot warp is a well-known hazard to lobstermen. When the traps are hauled in, the warp piles up near the hauler and the wheel. There can be hundreds of feet of line on the deck when an entire string of pots is brought aboard.

There is not enough room on the deck to flake out the line prior to redeploying the pots, which increases the risk of entanglement, but there are a few options for keeping the line off the deck and preventing a jumble of lines.

The open transom makes it easy for a person to fall or be pulled overboard. A bulkhead or rail on the transom could prevent an individual from being lost off the stern. Had the vessel been equipped with a closed transom or partially closed transom, the skipper may have been slowed or stopped by the structure, giving his helper time to react and render assistance.

The captain wasn't wearing a work vest, life jacket or any other type of personal flotation device when he went overboard. Nor did he have a knife to cut himself free.

In addition to the basic safety guidelines for preventing falls overboard — using safety lines, guard rails, and clean, nonskid decks — lobster boats can be made safer with the installation of one of three deck devices for handling trap lines.

• A fairlead is a removable pole that can be installed through the washboard of the deck. The line passes from the hauler, in front of the pole (to the water side) and out the open transom.

• A line bin is a hinged panel mounted under the hauler to catch the line.

• A line locker can be installed below the deck, beneath the hauler to keep the line off the deck.

The standard safety guidelines for improving your chances of rescue from the water include always wearing a personal flotation device (even if it is not Coast Guard approved). Also, have a rescue plan and practice it, avoid going on deck alone, and make sure more than one person on the boat knows how to operate the vessel and any safety or retrieval gear.

Additionally, there are two relatively simple precautions that work well on a small boat like this one:

• A gagline connected to the engine shutoff and run under the washboard would allow someone to shut down the engine immediately without having to use the wheelhouse gears.

• A knife taped to the inside of the captain's suspenders may have given him the opportunity to cut himself free. Also, knives mounted at the stern, port and starboard washboards may come in handy.

Falls overboard are the second leading cause of commercial fishing vessel fatalities. Water exposure is by far the most significant factor in the loss of life, with 75 percent of fatalities; many die from drowning or hypothermia.

People can survive longer in warmer waters — but not indefinitely. In incidents in which survival suit and PFD use are known, fishermen survive more than twice as often when the survival equipment is used properly. The best way to ensure proper use is to be sure lifesaving equipment is available and your crew is trained to use it.

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