Written by Jen Finn
All PFDs on deck
From U.S. Coast Guard reports
The image of the Gloucester fisherman in his Sou'wester has eternally linked fishermen with foul weather. Even on a short trip in sight of shore, you are at the mercy of the elements.
On a cool spring morning in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, a skipper and his crewman prepared for a day trip. The skipper had fished the Bering Sea for many years. His crewman was a greenhorn. The skipper rechecked all his emergency gear — PFDs, EPIRB, survival suits, flares. At 5 a.m., they headed out.
They steamed for a little over an hour and jigged for P-cod well into the night. This time of year, they had more than 15 hours of daylight. At around 11:15 p.m., within half an hour of sunset, they decided to head back in.
Three totes on deck held around 2,700 pounds. The load was evenly distributed, and the skipper checked that they were secure.
The seas were running 5 to 7 feet. It was 37 degrees and the water was 39. Visibility was poor in the dark with heavy rain and sleet.
At 11:40 a wave struck the starboard side, sending water over the rail; the vessel began listing to starboard. As the skipper and crewman went forward to assess, another wave struck, and the list increased. As they made for the wheelhouse and their survival suits, another wave hit, and the boat rolled over.
When the skipper broke the surface of the water he found himself trapped under his boat. He dove down and surfaced 30 to 40 feet from the overturned hull. He struggled to swim back and get atop the hull, calling for the crewman. The lights stayed on for about 40 minutes, illuminating the water, but the skipper couldn't find his crewman.
He crouched down on the hull and tried to keep watch for other boats as darkness turned to daylight. Scanning the horizon, he began to wave his arms.
At 11:40 a.m., a watch officer on a state patrol boat spotted him. By 11:50 a skiff from the patrol boat was alongside. Although the skipper was soaked to the skin and mildly incoherent, he told the two patrolmen about his missing crewman. The skipper was treated for hypothermia on the patrol boat.
Just after noon, the patrol boat set a course for port. In the meantime, a Coast Guard cutter and a harbormaster's vessel, with divers aboard, searched for the missing crewman with air support.
The active search continued for 24 hours, but the missing crewman wasn't found. The skipper's boat was righted and towed to Dutch.
Half of Alaska's 133 commercial fishing deaths between 2000 and 2009 were caused by drowning after vessel disasters. Most of those who drowned were found not to have been wearing a PFD.
While it was never ascertained if the fish totes, temporarily secured on deck, broke free as the vessel was pounded by waves, it is possible that the additional weight of the catch contributed to an unstable condition.
All fishermen should consider wearing a PFD when working on deck. 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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“It’s a crazy business right now,” said Pete Gerica, the New Orleans fisherman who now serves as president or the Louisiana Crab Task Force, a legislatively-created board of industry voices that makes recommendations to state government.