National Fisherman

Throwing your weight around

From U.S. Coast Guard reports

When you're feeding the masses, you have to make the big hauls. But managing the weight of a full net on deck can be the difference between another set and the last set.

On a cool November morning, a 71-foot steel-hulled trawler left New Bedford, Mass., with four crew for Georges Bank. The vessel had had a Coast Guard dockside exam about a week prior, which described it as being in good working order. The boat was well maintained and manned by a tested crew.

By the fourth day of the trip the crew had about 400 pounds of cod, 5,000 pounds of flounder and 13,000 pounds of skate evenly distributed in the hold. Late that night, they readied for another haulback by closing the freeing ports to prevent loss of catch, and the engines were clutched in at 2 to 3 knots.

The skipper headed toward one of the deck winches to assist, as they anticipated a heavy haul. Just after midnight the crew finished hauling the gear and the 1,100-pound trawl doors. The port door was loosely secured to the port rail just above the waterline in anticipation of another set. The net, full of skate, was lowered to the deck.

Using the port and starboard winches, the crew attempted to reposition the net, which abruptly shifted to port, hit the port bulwark and caused a severe list. The port trawl door submerged and funneled water onto the deck. The skipper made for the pilothouse in what the crew thought was an attempt to take the engines out of gear and make a mayday call.

Two fishing vessels nearby heard a scream and crashing sounds on the radio.

As the dragger continued to roll, the crew found themselves in water up to their waists and saw the sea washing over the coaming and down through the engine room hatch. Within minutes the boat capsized.

Another trawler, about two miles away, scanned the horizon but was unable to locate the vessel. The skipper notified the Coast Guard that he had lost visual contact, and Coast Guard received an EPIRB signal from the vessel.

The Coast Guard launched rescue operations. The skipper of the trawler, who knew the men aboard the capsized vessel, started toward the stricken vessel.

About 40 minutes later the trawler arrived on scene and observed a keel-up fishing vessel. The crew of the trawler heard yelling from the water, and recovered the three crew members clinging to life rings. The skipper of the trawler notified the Coast Guard and continued searching for the missing skipper.

Soon other fishing vessels and a Coast Guard fixed-wing aircraft arrived and commenced a search. A Coast Guard helicopter lowered an EMT to evaluate the survivors. A cutter was en route to transfer them. The skipper of the trawler offered to steam west to meet the cutter. As the trawler was leaving the area, about 90 minutes after the incident began, the capsized vessel sank beneath the waves.

Later that morning the rescue trawler rendezvoused with the Coast Guard cutter and transferred the survivors, who were released in good condition. The skipper was never found.

Lessons learned
The primary cause of the sinking was deemed to be a loss of stability resulting from the shifting on deck of a loaded fishing net. The ensuing events eliminated the boat's righting effect, which caused the vessel to capsize suddenly. The Coast Guard's post-incident recommendations mirrored the recommendations of a Coast Guard task force, chartered in 1999, that reviewed fishing vessel safety programs and recommended significant measures to reduce loss of life and vessels. Even well-maintained vessels manned with trained and experienced crews can be taken by surprise. Stay aware and 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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