Written by Jen Finn
Trapped in bad weather
From U.S. Coast Guard reports
One brisk, overcast January morning, a 31-foot fiberglass boat left her mooring near Naples, Fla., for a day trip. The two-man crew planned on moving their wooden stone crab traps.
The vessel didn't return to port that evening. After repeatedly failing to contact the fishermen, the families alerted the Coast Guard.
In winter, stiff westerly breezes can whip the generally placid Gulf of Mexico waters off the southwest Florida coast into a confused state of white caps. The 25-knot westerly winds created a steep 4-foot chop. The water was 58 degrees.
Boats in this part of the country aren't required to carry survival suits. Most fishermen who ply these waters in small boats stay in port during rough weather.
Some folks familiar with the boat reported some recent electrical problems onboard. They also noted the boat had all required safety equipment including a life float and an EPIRB.
There were no reports of mayday calls or EPIRB alerts from the area. At first light the Coast Guard began their search, aided by seven volunteer fishing boats.
A Coast Guard aircraft spotted a 300-yard-long oily sheen in the area the crab boat was last seen. In the same vicinity, a recreational boater found an unmarked white canvas bag with life jackets, a sea anchor and signal mirrors.
Thirteen days later the men's bodies were recovered in the Florida Keys. The cause of death was consistent with drowning, likely caused by hypothermia.
Several days later, divers from a local fire rescue department found the boat in 54 feet of water.
The crabber, lying on her keel, had a portside breach about 10 feet long below the waterline along the chine.
The boat's life float and life rings were still securely tethered. The unactivated EPIRB was in the forward enclosed cabin. Thirteen crab traps were on the aft deck section. The boat's steering station throttle controls looked to be in gear with the ignition switch still on.
The investigation revealed the boat's fiberglass was extremely thin in the area of the breach.
Rough sea conditions and the weight of the traps likely resulted in an instantaneous hull failure, sinking the boat before the crew could issue a mayday or deploy any emergency equipment.
The boat's recovered safety equipment was all in good condition. However, there were problems with the way it was arranged and stowed.
The personal flotation devices were in a storage bag, which may have prevented the fishermen from being able to get to them quickly.
The EPIRB was registered and in working condition. But it was mounted improperly, preventing its deployment. EPIRBs are water activated, but they do not transmit a signal while submerged.
The life float, although in serviceable condition, had been lashed down with small thread line, preventing it from rising to the surface when needed.
That left the fishermen stranded in chilly water. Hypothermia can happen in waters as warm as 79 degrees and immersion in water that from 50 to 60 degrees can cause death within an hour.
Whether you're on a short trip or out for days or weeks, always remember to 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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