Written by Jen Finn
Hung up on the haulback
Based on U.S. Coast Guard reports.
We've all heard, "It comes with the territory." Because commercial fishing is the most dangerous occupation in the country, we are saddened but not surprised to hear about accidents.
Many old-school fishermen went out on the grounds aware that one day they probably would not return. Modern safety gear, drills and overall awareness of safety measures have shifted that mindset, but it can still be easy to believe accidents happen only on other boats.
One July evening, a 46-foot steel-hulled trawler left Barnegat Light, N.J., for a 24-hour scalloping trip. It was 70 degrees with a southwest wind at 6 knots, an 8- to 10-foot swell, and visibility was about 10 miles.
At about 9:30 the next morning, they started their last haulback of their port and starboard rigs. Three scallop boxes on deck were lashed to the stern rail and nearly full with about 50 bushels each. The boxes weighed 1,000 to 1,500 pounds each when full. The engine was in clutch.
They had just landed the port dredge when the skipper noticed the starboard gear was snagged on the bottom. There was no brake or quick release on the dredge, and the boat heeled to starboard, shifting the scallops on deck.
The crewman climbed up the port side and jumped into the water as the vessel flipped; soon after, the skipper came up from under the boat. They climbed on the hull of the overturned boat. Within 40 minutes, it started to sink, and the skipper and crewman swam away and began to tread water.
The EPIRB and raft popped to the surface. The skipper deployed the raft, and he and the crewman climbed in. They paddled to the EPIRB, which appeared to be operating properly in manual mode. About 12 hours later, they were rescued by a fishing boat that caught sight of one of their flares. Neither was injured.
The main factor in this case was the dredge snagging. Ideally, trawl gear has an emergency release capability, and you won't be afraid to use it.
A snag on a rocky bottom or any other obstruction is one of the most dangerous situations a fisherman can encounter when trawling. Here are some points to consider:
Throttle down immediately to reduce your risk of being dragged astern, heeling, or taking water over the stern or rail. Keep all hatches closed and dogged down when dredging. Have all crew members immediately don life jackets or other survival gear and consider wearing a PFD or some sort of flotation aid when working on deck.
If the weather is rough or there is a large swell, consider using an ax, bolt cutters or similar to cut the lines or warps. If you are able to release the gear, attach a float to the ends to help you recover your gear once the situation has stabilized. If you do attempt to recover your gear, wait until bad weather conditions have subsided; remember to keep lifting points as close to the center of the vessel as possible; don't forget that lines and warps could foul your rudder and propeller.
About two years earlier, the vessel's net drum, and other miscellaneous gear had been removed and replaced with port and starboard dredge equipment, as well as the boxes on deck. A sheet of steel plate had been welded to the starboard bulwark to protect the hull from the dredge equipment, adding about 765 pounds and causing a slight starboard list. The owner-skipper said he corrected that by putting more fuel in the port tank.
The investigation showed the EPIRB signal was never picked up, and during an inspection after the accident, it was found to be "functionally compromised." Have your EPIRB checked and registered.
Surviving a dangerous incident may make you more cautious next time and more likely to practice drills, but we hope it doesn't take a close call to elicit that response.
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