National Fisherman

A stacked deck

From U.S. Coast Guard reports

Some 85 miles east of Atlantic City, on a mid-May day, the skipper and three-man crew of a Rhode Island offshore lobster boat were corkscrewing through rough weather. Winds were out of the southwest at 25 to 35 knots, seas running at 10 to 12 feet and the air a nippy 49 degrees. The skipper was at the helm, and the crew was on deck setting in a trawl.

One of the crewmen was aft, down-stacking lobster pots, and the other two deckhands were forward on the deck just in front of the pots. The crewman working the pots was trying to keep a pot from sliding aft and working a knot out of the line. One of the other crewmen saw he was being pushed back toward the open stern gate and yelled, "Get out of the way; let it go!" But the crewman was dragged off the stern and into the 45-degree water.

One of the crewmen ran to the secondary engine control at the back of the deckhouse and took the engine out of gear. He grabbed a life ring and headed toward the stern. The crewman in the water was wearing rain gear, rubber boots and a hooded sweatshirt and was already about 20 feet behind the boat.

The skipper heard the engine come out of gear and ran out on deck. One of the crewmen grabbed the grounding line and tried to stop the trawl. He looked aft and realized the man in the water wasn't tangled in the line so he cut it. As the skipper maneuvered the vessel, the other crewman made multiple attempts to reach the man in the water with the life ring. Although the ring was right next to him, the man in the water couldn't hang on. Everyone was yelling at him, "Take off your boots! Get rid of your gear!" But he seemed incoherent.

The skipper had managed to get the vessel within 4 feet of the man overboard. He was losing strength, and the skipper told the other crewmen to try to get him with the gaff or grappling hook. The crew attempted to hook him, but as the skipper recounted after the incident, "By then we just couldn't get him, and we watched him go under."

The skipper made for the pilothouse so he could turn the vessel around. One of the crewmen remained aft to act as a spotter. The skipper then made a mayday call; only four minutes had passed.

The Coast Guard received the call, launched aircraft and directed a cutter toward the location. The fishing vessel's skipper stayed on scene to help.

They searched for 22 more hours. The crewman was never found.

Lessons learned
The crewmen setting the pots were working with an open stern gate.

The man in the water was wearing rubber boots and heavy outerwear but no PFD; water would have filled his boots and weighed down his sweatshirt, making it extremely difficult for him to stay afloat or remove the heavy items.

The other deckhands were not permanent crew members. Neither had received an in-brief by the skipper. They admitted they had not been instructed as to where the emergency equipment was, or what the procedures were for emergency situations. They were both experienced fishermen who knew how to react, but not specific to this boat.

Newer PFDs are less cumbersome and are integrated into jackets and bibs; they do not restricting normal ranges of motion. Consider wearing a PFD when working on deck. 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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