National Fisherman

Drill to survive

From U.S. Coast Guard reports

In the throes of an emergency, training increases your chances of survival. Instead of relying on panic response to get out safely, training drills give fishermen a course of action to follow in an emergency.

In February 2008 a 37-foot 1970 wooden-hulled gillnetter out of New Bedford, Mass., was fishing about 12 miles south of Fire Island, N.Y., with a crew of three. At about 8 a.m., the bilge alarm went off and activated one of the bilge pumps.

The skipper checked the fish hold and saw about 8 inches of water that was rising steadily. The second pump started sometime in the next half hour. The water level stabilized, and the crew set about trying to locate the source of the flooding. By 9 a.m., it was clear the pumps couldn't keep up, and the crew quickly realized they were sinking.

With a third pump started, the skipper made his first call to the Coast Guard via channel 16. By 9:30, the water in the fish hold was waist-deep. The crew calmly readied their life raft, made a mayday call and slipped into survival suits. By 10 a.m., the crew abandoned ship into the raft and activated the EPIRB.

Just before 11 a.m., a Coast Guard H-60 helicopter left Air Station Atlantic City, N.J., and located the raft within minutes. All three were hoisted aboard by 11:16 a.m. with no injuries. The boat was a total loss.

Lessons learned

At least one member of the crew had taken safety training in New Bedford on the use of survival equipment. A certified safety instructor, upon reviewing the events around the sinking, commented: "They did everything by the book, the way it was supposed to be done. That goes back to the training."

While this incident showcases the positive outcome of training, the need for training is often identified after a review of emergencies or mishaps without such successful outcomes. The Marine Board of Investigation report into the 2001 sinking of the Arctic Rose, with the loss of 15 lives, recommended requiring recurring safety and survival training. Additionally, organizations that advocate safety and survival training, like the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the American Red Cross, recognize that training must be refreshed periodically to retain its value.

This interest in safety training is also being addressed in proposed legislation that would require individuals in charge of a vessel to complete a training program and demonstrate competencies, with refresher training at least every five years. Fishing vessel safety training programs could be supported through a grants program.

In the meantime if you are trying to find safety and survival training, a number of training organizations offer classes (some free of charge) around the country. Go to for more information. Training topics include use of life rafts, donning immersion suits, making proper mayday calls, use of flares, fire fighting, flooding/damage control, pump operation and vessel stability.

The crew that survived this flooding event represents what happens when everyone aboard shares an understanding of their safety responsibilities, equipment, and emergency procedures. The most thorough understanding among a crew comes from periodic training, instruction and drills. Train like you fish — fish safe.

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