National Fisherman

Cool head in a hot spot

From U.S. Coast Guard reports

A shrimp boat captain and crewman were preparing for a 12-day trip for Key West jumbo pinks on Sept. 11, 2001, out of Stock Island, Fla. As they headed out on the 73-foot wooden shrimp boat, they heard a VHF warning for Tropical Storm Gabrielle. The skipper decided to take shelter and ride out the storm.

In the early hours of Sept. 12, they set anchor on the leeward side of the Marquesas Keys. The weather quickly turned. Even on the leeward side of the Marquesas, the onslaught of waves caused the shrimper to rock and roll. With the anchor holding steady, the skipper and his crewman took turns on watch.

Just before midnight on Sept. 13, the crewman shook the skipper awake. "Cap'n, there is smoke coming from the electrical wires leading to the VHF," he said. The skipper jumped up and ran to the wheelhouse to secure the 32-volt breaker. Smoke continued to billow from behind the radio. The skipper ran to the engine room to disconnect the batteries. There he found nearly all of the battery posts on the four 8-volt batteries had melted. Looking around, he also noticed the water level in the bilge was rising.

He instructed his crewman to continue with mayday calls on the damaged VHF. The skipper attempted to hardwire the 32-volt bilge pump to the last 8-volt battery. The bilge pump shuttered to life, though he soon realized it didn't have the power to discharge overboard. The seasoned shrimper knew it was time to activate his EPIRB.

The crewman grabbed the EPIRB out of its bracket and flipped the switch. "Don't let go of that thing. We are going to need it!" the skipper yelled. The crewman next grabbed the flare box from under the helm. The skipper instructed him to light off a parachute flare every 30 minutes.

At 6 a.m. on Sept. 14, the crewman lit off the last flare and the old shrimper began listing to port. The two men made for the top of the pilothouse, which cradled the six-person life raft. With EPIRB in hand, the crewman helped the skipper unlash the raft. It hit the water with a splash, and the two men leapt overboard to swim toward it.

They watched the pilothouse and black rigging disappear. The raft bobbed a few hours before rescue came from a fellow shrimper whom the Coast Guard had notified of their general position.

Lessons learned
The investigation postulates that the vessel's wiring became overheated from excessive current. Overheating degrades wire insulation. Without effective insulation, electrical arcing is bound to result.

Although the boat was lost, the working order of all safety equipment onboard along with the prudent reactions of an experienced skipper and crewman led to their survival. Even though they never made a successful mayday call, the EPIRB provided a distress notification along with their position.

This incident adds credence to the practice of carrying secondary VHF communications that can be powered by an isolated battery source. The incident also shows that an experienced and cool-headed crew can overcome one obstacle after another and live to 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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