National Fisherman

Free your raft from the rigging

From U.S. Coast Guard reports

Vessel maintenance can't always be performed in port. However, you can verify from the safety of shore that your emergency gear is stowed properly.

A 70-foot steel-hulled Seattle-based sardine seiner got under way from Warrenton, Ore., at around 7 a.m. on a quiet September morning. The seiner was operating with a skipper, an engineer, two deckhands/skiff drivers and a cook. The weather was starting to pick up with 6-foot rollers.

The skipper had more than 40 years in the industry. One of the deckhands was a greenhorn working alongside his father.

During a recent haul-out, the vessel's fish hold was converted to a wet hold and the owner installed a baffle system in the tanks to reduce the free surface effect. The owner also had hydrostatic releases fitted to the EPIRB and life raft.

At about 9 a.m., the seiner crossed the bar. During that transit the engineer periodically checked the engine room and noted there was a small amount of water in the bilges and a slight port list.

The crew made their first set around noon. With about 55 tons of sardines pumped into the hold, the skipper decided to head back to port because of the weather. They tightened up the skiff's painter line with the winch and began their return trip at about 4 p.m.

About half an hour later, the seiner began to take water over the port quarter, and the engineer went down to the engine room. He noticed more water in the bilge, started the pump and also started pumping water out of the port fish hold and into the starboard hold.

Within a few minutes water began entering the engine room through a midships hatch.

The deckhands released the tension on the skiff just as the vessel heeled over to port. They jumped into the water and made for the skiff. The engineer made his way through waist-deep water toward the fo'c'sle, then through the galley and swam up into the wheelhouse.

He saw the skipper being pushed out the starboard door of the wheelhouse as the vessel fully capsized. The engineer managed to get out the door and swim to the surface.

By this time, the father-son deckhand team had cut the skiff loose. They picked up the engineer and saw the cook, who was hanging onto a floating survival suit still in its bag. She looked like she was OK, so they said they were going to go get the skipper, who was floating face down. The cook motioned agreement.

They struggled to get the unresponsive skipper into the skiff and finally lashed him to the side. They returned for the cook, who was now motionless.

They managed to get the cook into the skiff and administered CPR for 10 minutes, but she could not be revived. The surviving crew, with their deceased shipmates, headed east for shore.

About three hours later, they steered the skiff onto the beach. A passerby called 911. Within minutes local rescue personnel and a Coast Guard helicopter arrived on scene. The three survivors had sustained no serious injuries.

Lessons learned

The EPIRB and life raft did not deploy, and the owner did not believe there were any obstructions to prevent the equipment from operating properly.

The owner believed a hatch cover may have not been secured properly, allowing water into the fish hold.

The raft and EPIRB must be secured to the vessel, yet able to float free. They should be stowed clear of all rigging, overhangs and gear.

Do not stow rafts near exhaust stacks. Heat and exhaust gases will deteriorate the rubber sealing gaskets allowing corrosive salt spray and exhaust to enter the container. This can damage the equipment, particularly the firing mechanism.

In a float-free installation, the life-raft painter must be secured to the deck or to the hydrostatic release, depending on the type of float-free arrangement. If no hydrostatic release is used the painter must be secured to the deck and be equipped with a weak link, which is designed to break allowing the raft to float to the surface.

It is recommended that the facility servicing your raft go over the installation of the raft on board the vessel in order to ensure that the weak-link and hydrostatic release are properly installed, and that the crew is familiar with the operation of the raft.

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