National Fisherman

Wind, weather and waves take a toll

On a brisk February day, the skipper of a 50-foot trap boat and his new deckhand were headed south along the northern California coast for eel fishing.

14sept NF Consequences 240pxTallBy early afternoon, seas were 16 to 20 feet, with 30- to 40-knot winds. Around 1 p.m., the skipper decided to stop plowing into the waves. He changed the boat's course to the south-southeast to find a safe haven and let the weather pass.

Within 30 minutes, a rapid succession of large waves blew out several windows. Water began flooding the galley and into the machinery spaces. The skipper immediately called the Coast Guard and reported the boat was taking on water.

The Coast Guard asked the skipper to light off the boat's EPIRB and mobilized to assist the stricken boat. The skipper retrieved and activated the EPIRB.

Moments later the skipper saw and smelled smoke. He tracked down and extinguished a fire in the engine room.

Then an electrical fire broke out in the galley. The skipper traced it to an outlet, secured the power and extinguished that fire. But the boat was dead in the water.

He updated the Coast Guard and reported he was readying the life raft and that he and the deckhand were donning survival suits. At 2:50 p.m. a Coast Guard helicopter arrived on scene.

With swells now estimated at 30 feet and winds gusting to 50 knots, the skipper decided to abandon ship. By 3:10, a rescue swimmer deployed from the helicopter had retrieved both men.

During the hoisting operation the skipper became unresponsive. The rescue crew initiated CPR in the helicopter, about 25 minutes from land. Ambulances transported the men to a medical center. The deckhand was stabilized, treated for minor abrasions and released. The skipper could not be revived.

Lessons learned

Listen to broadcasts, keep track of barometric pressure and use available weather faxes that can provide charts, maps and satellite to stay apprised of weather conditions before and during a trip.

Driving into a head sea can damage your boat and equipment. Reducing speed minimizes damage. Ease back on the throttles as soon as you experience pounding or begin shipping water.

Slowly heading into the sea can be safer than having the weather on your beam or stern. Running down or before large waves can cause your vessel to lose steering, as the hull is lifted by the stern and may cause the vessel to broach.

If you are moving broadside to the sea, adjust your course to take the bigger waves on your windward bow.

Understanding weather broadcasts and being able to interpret environmental conditions lets you make informed decisions on fishing operations. Sometimes the best trip is the one you postpone. Keep a weather eye out and fish safe.

This article is based on U.S. Coast Guard reporting and is intended to bring safety issues to the attention of our readers. It is not intended to judge or reach conclusions regarding the ability or capacity of any person, living or dead, or any boat or piece of equipment.

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National Fisherman Live

National Fisherman Live: 10/21/14

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