Written by Jen Finn
Sometimes a disastrous trip to sea is bad from the beginning. But there are those normal fishing trips to known fishing grounds under normal weather conditions that quickly become game-changing life events.
On an early August morning a crew of three left Hyannis, Mass., on their 45-foot steel-hulled scallop dredger on what was to be a 24-hour trip.
The weather was normal for the area at that time of year — patchy fog, air and water temperatures around 70 degrees F, winds SSW at 4 to 5 knots, and a 3-foot chop.
At around 9 a.m., the crew started to fish. The first haul-back yielded about 19 bushels of scallops. They quickly turned out a second set about half an hour later. The dredge got hung up on the bottom, straining the wire, which grew taut and began to strip off the winch drum.
Unable to maneuver out of the situation, the skipper took the vessel out of gear and engaged the tow winch in an effort to haul back the dredge. This attempt increased the scalloper's starboard list. Then the port outrigger swung inboard, exacerbating the list, and water started coming over the rail. The boat heeled over and capsized in a matter of seconds. The skipper and two crew members jumped into the water wearing only light summer clothing.
The vessel was equipped with four survival suits (located in the fo'c'sle) and numerous other PFDs (in the pilothouse). However, the skipper and crew had no time to don survival gear or deploy a survival craft. Once in the water, the combination of a strong current and limited visibility because of fog prevented them from locating any survival equipment if it came to the surface. They never saw any of the life rafts deploy after the capsizing. The skipper and crew found and clung to plastic vat and fish tote covers to stay afloat.
After about two hours in the water, the skipper, reportedly a non-swimmer, began to lose consciousness and slipped beneath the surface. His crew members were unable to reach him, and he was not seen again.
After more than 10 hours in the water and just before sunset, the crew members spotted the scalloper's five-person buoyant apparatus. They were able to swim to it and climbed aboard as best they could. They said they could hear vessels nearby but had no way of attracting attention. The next morning, the crewmen retrieved a cooler with some food and water that had floated free from the vessel. Hanging on throughout the day and the following night, they apparently drifted about 40 miles from where their vessel was believed to have capsized. All the while, the Coast Guard and other vessels were searching for them.
The next morning, a passing fishing boat happened upon them and brought them aboard. The Coast Guard arrived later and transported both survivors to a local hospital. The survivors were weak and suffering from dehydration, but they did not sustain any serious injuries.
The scalloper was designed for use as a bottom trawler/dragger but was converted for clamming in the mid-1980s. In 2005, the equipment was further modified from a hydraulic clam dredge to a single side-tow scallop dredge configuration. This change included the removal of several thousand pounds of clamming gear, which was replaced with lighter scallop gear. The owners also added a wooden shucking house on the port side.
Because the boat was less than 79 feet long, it did not require a stability review. There was no record of a stability assessment during the life of the vessel. After twice being altered for different fisheries, it is quite possible the vessel's stability was compromised. The skipper may not have had a good understanding of the new fishing gear's effect on the stability and how a dredge hang-up and attempts to free it would affect the scalloper.
The boat had completed a dockside safety exam while it was clamming and was properly outfitted for nearshore (not more than 3 nautical miles from shore) operations. It did not complete another exam after it was converted to scalloping beyond three miles. The vessel's EPIRB was only two years old, but the NOAA registration had recently expired. When the scalloper sank, the EPIRB did not deploy or activate, and it was never located.
The vessel carried three survival craft, including the type required for their area of operation. The survivors eventually found and used the buoyant apparatus until rescue. Another fishing boat located a four-person life raft days after the sinking. It was still in its canister and attached to a piece of wood from the shucking house. Presumably, the shucking house was not substantial enough to withstand the capsizing and sinking, and broke up with the raft attached; the hydrostatic release didn't have enough pressure to activate, so the raft didn't inflate.
Coast Guard operations like Safe Catch and Safe Crab encourage fishermen to examine their safety and survival equipment to ensure it is in good condition and will function as designed. An examination should also include, where applicable, non-regulated areas and items of their vessels for deficiencies such as hull condition, vessel stability and watertight integrity. Coast Guard examiners will check for required safety and survival equipment, and can provide owners and operators assistance and education in checking and testing other areas and systems on the vessel to help ensure it is seaworthy.
Make sure your equipment is in good condition, proper working order and installed correctly. Be Safe! Fish Safe!
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