National Fisherman

Fighting fatigue

From U.S. Coast Guard reports

One late April evening a skipper and his lone crewman prepared their 44-foot, wooden hulled fishing vessel for a salmon fishing trip off the California coast. During the 58-year-old boat's transit south, steering problems emerged.

The veteran skipper maneuvered his vessel into a sheltered cove to make repairs. They replaced the vessel's broken steering chain and departed, planning to steam south until they reached another small port to top-off on fuel. Then they would begin fishing as they headed to their favorite fishing grounds.

But during the 50-mile trip to the next fueling port, the vessel's steering began acting up again. The two men decided to push on to their next port and reassess the situation dockside.

Upon reaching the fuel dock at around 1 p.m. on their second day at sea, the skipper went below deck to find and fix the steering problem while the crewman filled the two 750-gallon fuel tanks.

After making some minor linkage adjustments that corrected the steering problem, the skipper then helped the crewman load a few more necessary supplies for their journey. At approximately 6:30 p.m., they eased the boat away from the dock.

Although eager to start fishing, both men began feeling fatigued from the past days' events. They agreed that the skipper would stand the first watch; the crewman would relieve him around midnight.

In the pilothouse, the skipper began searching his chart plotter for the area he planned on fishing first. He then compiled a list of GPS coordinates where he had found good fishing in the past and headed the vessel toward his first southerly waypoint.

With fatigue setting in, the skipper programmed the vessel's autopilot to maintain the boat's southerly course and keep them 12 nautical miles off the coast. He then kicked back in his captain's chair, peering off into the darkness.

About an hour after midnight the men awoke to a grinding noise followed by a sudden, jarring shot that reverberated through the vessel's keel. The startled crewman found the skipper in the pilothouse looking through the forward windshield.

The boat was firmly resting on the beach and beginning slowly list to port. The skipper tried backing the vessel out, but each cresting swell pushed it further up onto the shore.

Concluding they were no longer safe aboard, both men abandoned ship by hopping over the lee rail and walking ashore.

Mother Ocean quickly claimed the boat. The skipper and crewman could only stand by helplessly and watch the hull breaking apart just hours after the vessel ran aground.

At first light, the Coast Guard arrived. A response team was unable to remove the fuel from the boat, which was deemed a total loss.

Lessons learned
A subsequent investigation determined that extreme fatigue caused the skipper to fall asleep at the helm and that the autopilot couldn't compensate for the set and drift caused by the tides, local currents and the prevailing winds.

Care must be taken when choosing the watch and combating fatigue. The skipper must assess the crew (and himself) and assign watches to those in the best physical and mental shape.

If the crew is large enough, two people should stand watch at all times to help keep each other alert and properly monitor the vessel's operation. Crew fatigue is a huge problem in today's commercial fishing industry and is one of the leading causes of injuries.

The fatigue problem is especially acute on smaller boats that are single-handed or have a very small crew. Luckily, in this instance, there were no fatalities. Stay alert and fish safe!

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