National Fisherman

Safe haven

From U.S. Coast Guard reports

Weather at sea is a fickle beast, even in sight of land. The only way to be prepared is to never feel comfortable in changeable seas — and always have survival gear at the edges of your mind if not the tips of your fingers.

On a night in early March, a 31-foot fiberglass longliner was fishing for gray cod in an interior sound in Southeast Alaska. The skipper was fishing the same area as another longliner skippered by a longtime friend. The weather conditions that night were described by one skipper as "glass calm."

At approximately 10:30 p.m., the skipper of the first longliner advised his friend that he and his two crewmen intended to head straight to port to off-load. The skipper left a message with his processor indicating he had approximately 12,000 pounds in his belowdeck slush tank (10,000-pound capacity) and three 500-pound deck totes. The skipper of the second vessel planned to follow after he pulled his last two sets.

As the first longliner crossed the sound, it encountered 4- to 5-foot waves. The second vessel later radioed that they had decided to moor in a protected area to avoid the rough crossing. The skipper of the boat in transit sent word that he had anchored in a sheltered cove for the night.

At daybreak, the weather on channel 6 indicated a gale warning and a small-craft advisory, a 5-foot SW swell and winds out of the NNE at 25 knots. A little after 6 a.m., the skipper radioed that he was leaving the cove. He intended to cross a major strait to the westerly shoreline (the normal path vessels followed bound for port). At around 7 a.m., two other vessels in the area heard a brief, panicked mayday call from the skipper, then nothing.

By 7:45 the Coast Guard, the Civil Air Patrol and other vessels in the vicinity had started a search. A local mountain rescue crew was airlifted into the adjoining shoreside area to conduct a ground search. At 1 p.m., a Coast Guard cutter found a survival suit, life ring and a deflated boat with the longliner's name marked on them. No survivors or personal effects were found in or around the recovered gear.

Search and rescue efforts continued for three days to no avail.

Lessons learned
The skipper was very experienced and cool under pressure. He was religious about checking the weather via VHF. He had set 35 knots as a maximum wind speed for vessel operations. On good fishing trips, he would load out the hold and put the excess in the totes on deck.

The lost longliner had a tendency to roll easily in a seaway. It was considered to be top heavy. It had a tall bait house and an extra 100 gallons of fuel atop the pilothouse. There were three survival suits on board and an inflatable boat lashed to the top of the bait house. The skipper had an EPIRB, but it wasn't registered with NOAA and no one can confirm that it was functional.

All reports from the area confirm seas at least 8 feet and 35- to 45-knot winds with 50-knot gusts. The tide was going out at the time of the incident.

It is reasonable to conclude that the 31-foot longliner loaded with approximately 12,000 pounds of product would be in extremis in the type of weather described by witnesses. It is most likely that as the crew headed into the strait, they encountered extreme weather conditions, the intensity of which surprised the skipper. The brevity and panicked nature of the mayday call supports the conclusion that whatever happened seemed unexpected and was catastrophic.

Sometimes it seems no amount of expertise or preparation can stand in the face of the tempest, but prepare we must. Before your next trip, take time to ensure your EPIRB is functional, installed correctly and registered; know the operational limits of your vessel; keep apprised of weather; and in rough weather conditions, have PFDs at the ready. 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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