National Fisherman

Preparation pays lifesaving dividend

From U.S. Coast Guard reports

When Apollo 13 suffered an in-flight explosion and couldn't complete its moon-landing mission, it still managed to return to Earth with its crew. NASA deemed the mission a "successful failure."

On a fishing boat, your mission is to complete the trip and return with boat, catch and crew intact. Things don't always go as planned. but by being aware and prepared, you can avoid disaster and ensure that the worst that happens is a successful failure.

A 70-foot, steel-hulled fishing vessel was on a September scalloping trip in an open area along the East Coast. The 132-ton vessel, built in 1980, was operating with a crew of five and had a fishery observer aboard.

About five days into the trip, the captain and crew were listening to radio "chatter" among the dozen or so other boats on the grounds, and the news wasn't good: a boat had gone down the day before, and the Coast Guard was recovering bodies; all indications were that none was wearing a survival suit.

Disturbed, the scalloper's captain ordered abandon-ship drills for the next morning; the drills also included donning survival suits — a decision that was to later pay unforeseen dividends.

The next day, the weather was typical for the area and season, with seas around 5 feet, a solid overcast and low visibility in fog and drizzle. At approximately 1630, the captain decided that a pot of fresh coffee was in order.

He went below to get some bottled water he had stored in the fish hold and noticed more water than usual in the port and starboard shaft alleys. He went on deck and instructed the engineer to pump the fish hold.

Minutes later the engineer reported water in the engine room as well. As soon as it became clear that the pumps couldn't keep up with the flooding, the captain went to the wheelhouse and made a mayday and told the crew and the observer to prepare to abandon ship.

The observer recalls that, while there was a lot of activity, the mood was calm and collected. The crew donned their survival suits and put portable radios, flares and other gear into plastic bags. The captain deployed the life raft and tethered it alongside on the painter.

With the water edging up the engine-room ladder and the vessel losing power, the captain gave orders to abandon ship. The crew entered the life raft and the captain activated the EPIRB. The observer also activated a personal locating beacon.

Another fishing vessel in the area had intercepted the mayday call and relayed the sinking vessel's position to the local Coast Guard. Simultaneously, the Coast Guard picked up the sinking vessel's EPIRB and the NMFS observer's PLB.

Approximately an hour after the abandon-ship order, an aircraft radioed that it had made several low passes over the area but seen nothing, even though the captain had sent up a couple of flares. When the captain heard the aircraft's next approach, he fired another flare, which the rescue aircraft sighted.

Within 30 minutes, a Good Samaritan vessel loomed out of the fog and cautiously came alongside the raft. The fishermen, the observer and the raft were recovered and returned safely to a nearby port. There were no reported injuries.

The vessel itself, wallowing low in the water and without power, eventually sank. The actual cause of the flooding was never ascertained, but circumstantial evidence indicated the vessel sank because of progressive flooding resulting from the failure of a through-hull fitting and/or equipment.

In this case, the captain made it a point to be aware of what was going on both on the fishing grounds and aboard his own vessel. He made the fortuitous decision to drill his crew and also had made a wise investment in survival gear.

Additionally, a properly registered and operating EPIRB and PLB not only provided timely identification and location of the sinking vessel, but also obviated the need to commit further resources to the mission.

As a result of proper crew preparation and utilization of the survival equipment, this trip was, in the final equation, a success. This crew will "fish safe" another day.

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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