National Fisherman

Survival is bicoastal

At fishing expos all over the country, you find fishermen who work different fisheries and oceans comparing stories and debating who goes at it harder, who is tougher, and which area serves up the worst sea states and weather conditions. But no matter the conditions or the region, awareness of your surroundings is the most important aspect of work at sea.

A 25-foot fiberglass crabber operating with a crew of two out of Pillar Point Harbor, Calif., set out to check pots in Half Moon Bay. The weather on that December morning was described as "gnarly" by some of the local fishermen. Thick fog limited visibility to less than a quarter mile and there was a small-craft advisory for the area. The advisory called for westerly winds between 5 and 10 knots with waves of 1 to 3 feet on top of a westerly swell running 20 to 24 feet at 16 second intervals; 25-foot breakers were also reported near the harbor entrance and a very low tide that would expose a nearby reef.

A friend of the owner/skipper and a fellow fisherman in the small harbor's tight-knit community who had the same type of boat had called to compare notes on the weather. Even though the weather was less than favorable and they were aware a charter vessel had started on a trip that morning and turned back, both skippers headed out to check their pots. By 9 a.m., both boats had cleared the harbor and were communicating regularly.

They commented on how tough it was to get out of the harbor, but that conditions were more manageable once outside. One skipper cleared his pots and proceeded back to port around 1 p.m. Approaching the harbor entrance, he encountered harsh conditions and radioed back his concerns, saying he would wait inside to watch for his friend.

About 30 minutes later, no one from the second boat was returning calls. The Coast Guard picked up the missing vessel's EPIRB signal about an hour later. A rescue helicopter went to the site and located a debris field and a survival suit. The skipper's body was recovered about a week later, but the crewman was never found.

On the East Coast, a 41-foot fiberglass swordfish longliner working out of Fort Pierce, Fla., in June was operating with a crew of three. The weather in the vicinity had winds coming out of the SSE at more than 40 knots with 10-foot waves and 12-foot swells, about 1 mile visibility and low clouds, and the barometric pressure was dropping.

The longliner was about 80 miles off the coast of Cape Canaveral and set out gear. At around 6 a.m. the next day, the crew started retrieving their set when the skipper noticed the boat was very sluggish. He soon saw that it was down by the stern and was starting to take waves over the rail. The longliner was flooding quickly by way of the lazarette.

The skipper saw the pumps weren't keeping pace with the flooding and that the boat was going down. He made a mayday call to the Coast Guard, then instructed the crew to go topside, don life vests, launch the raft and activate the EPIRB. The skipper and one crewman made it into the raft safely, but the other crewman was washed into the water.

The Coast Guard, having received the mayday and picked up the EPIRB signal, launched aircraft and dispatched a cutter to the scene. Approximately six hours after the initial call, a rescue helicopter located the raft, and hoisted the skipper and crewman safely. About 40 minutes later, the other crewman was found clinging to vessel debris and was also rescued. None of the three crewmen sustained serious injuries.

Lessons learned

In the case of the California crabber, the causes for the loss of both crewman and vessel may never be ascertained with certainty, although circumstantial evidence indicates the vessel suffered a sudden and catastrophic break-up after probable capsizing in extreme wave conditions. Also, the crew was put into cold water without having donned any personal survival equipment.

The Florida longliner flooded and sank quickly because of progressive flooding resulting from hull/equipment failure, according to the surviving crew members. The longliner crew saw the deteriorating situation, had time to react and initiate emergency measures (a mayday call, EPIRB activation, launching of the raft and donning of life vests), and they were in warm waters. In both cases rough weather conditions were a contributing factor to the loss of the vessels.

Fishermen are twice as likely to survive if they use survival equipment properly. Of course there are incidents where the equipment is available but there is no time to use it. Such was probably the case in the California incident.

The Florida longliner crew members had some time to respond to the emergency and were able to don and deploy survival equipment, so they were able to perform their function and save their lives.

It doesn't matter where you fish or in what conditions, the isolation of working the ocean means owners, operators, skippers and crews are each and all responsible for safety onboard. You must be aware of your surroundings, be ready for conditions or emergencies you may encounter, and know how to use your safety and survival equipment. As always, be prepared! Be safe! Fish safe!

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