National Fisherman

Know the drill

From U.S. Coast Guard reports

In routine debriefings, many World War II U.S. bomber pilots recounted similar stories and responses when it came to surviving airborne emergencies or vicious fighter attacks.

"You focus on what you have to do to save your airplane and crew."

"You're frightened but there's a difference between fear and panic."

"Panic paralyzes; fear energizes."

It is not a stretch to apply that line of thinking, focus and training to surviving an emergency at sea.

On an early November day, a 42-foot fiberglass longliner had been at sea for almost seven days out of Cortez, Fla. A skipper, three deckhands and a dog were on board. The sea was rough with 10- to 12-foot swells and 25- to 30-knot winds.

The crew was hauling their gear when a rogue wave hit the port bow. It swept down the port rail and temporarily submerged the aft deck. The lazarette hatch, already weakened when a diesel oil drum had fallen on it earlier in the trip, was further damaged. Water kept coming over the rail and flooding the lazarette. The skipper made his way aft and realized the lazarette was taking on water through the damaged hatch. Within another 30 minutes the lazarette was two-thirds full, and the pump could not keep up.

The skipper opened a small access port between the lazarette and the fish hold. Although a calculated risk, his idea was to redirect the water to the larger and more efficient bilge pump in the hold. The skipper assigned a deckhand to monitor the water level in both compartments. Then he went back to the wheelhouse to contact another fishing boat in the area. He informed that boat of his situation and position and asked the skipper to stand by on the radio.

About an hour after his vessel started taking on water, the skipper could see the pumps were not holding their own. He told the crew to prepare to abandon ship. They donned life jackets and put additional survival gear in a central location. They retrieved the life raft and got it ready to be deployed manually.

The skipper concluded his vessel was sinking beneath him. He had the crew launch the life raft, put it alongside and climb in. He went to the wheelhouse to tell the skipper on standby that he was sinking, abandoning ship and would need assistance. He took one last look around, activated his EPIRB and entered the raft. The skipper and crew watched as their boat sank below the waves.

The Coast Guard received a radio call from the good Samaritan vessel around noon. The skipper reported receiving a mayday from the survivors of a fishing boat that sank 60 miles west of St. Petersburg. The Coast Guard diverted an HH-60 rescue helicopter and a C-130 search plane. The rescue crews arrived about an hour later and began hoisting the people and the dog from the raft. They were transported to shore. All were reported to be in good condition.

Lessons learned

This may sound like a typical search and rescue story, or yet another flooding. However, the outcome is what distinguishes one from another. In many similar scenarios, members of the crew drowned, or were missing and presumed dead.

In this case, the skipper and crew worked their way methodically through the emergency. They evaluated the condition of the boat and tried every means to save it. The skipper realized early on that things could get worse, and he had the presence of mind to establish communications with a nearby boat. When it seemed the vessel would sink, the skipper prepared the crew to abandon ship. And when it became undeniable, he made one last call to the stand-by vessel and activated the EPIRB. The crew knew where their survival equipment was and how to use it. Also, they had time to implement their emergency action plan.

If practice doesn't make perfect, it will at least make you more comfortable in your response to an emergency. Statistically, people who are able to use emergency gear are twice as likely to survive as those who don't use the equipment.=

Surely the skipper and his crew experienced some measure of fear and anxiety as their situation became more precarious, but based on their actions they didn't give in to panic. Much like the bomber pilots of old, they focused on what they had to do to survive. They did what they were trained to do in an emergency. When danger confronts you, keep your head and follow your emergency plans. Fish safe!

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