Written by Jen Finn
From U.S. Coast Guard reports
Early one cool January day, three men set out on their 29-foot gillnetter for rockfish and perch in upper Chesapeake Bay. This time of year fish frequent the warmer depths of the main shipping channels and watermen set their gillnets at the channel edges.
In the port's inner harbor, a 70-foot tug's six-man crew readied their barge for a day of channel widening. The mate on watch noticed a fishing boat working in the main channel.
Four hours later, the tug was pushing the barge back toward the dredge site. The captain sent the crew below to rest.
The gillnetters also headed back to pull their nets. As they began hauling back, they saw a tug and barge heading their way.
The fishing skipper grabbed the VHF and made two callouts to alert the tug's crew of the fishing boat's presence. The crew resumed picking the nets.
Meanwhile, the tugboat captain had to alter course back toward the main shipping channel.
Lacking visual or radar contacts, the captain made the turn around the can buoy marking the channel entrance. Suddenly he felt a vibration run down the tug's length.
Scanning the horizon, he noticed someone clinging to debris in the 39-degree water and quickly pulled the throttles back to full astern. The gillnetter's crew struggled to save their boat, now stuck under the barge's bow. But the collision created uncontrollable flooding, and the gillnetter quickly sank.
The Coast Guard and other nearby commercial vessels responded to the captain's VHF radio calls for assistance. The three fishermen were quickly delivered to the local hospital.
Two were treated for their injuries and for hypothermia and released, but the skipper died from the effects of exposure.
An investigation determined the towing captain didn't maintain a proper lookout. He was aware that the barge created a large blind spot in the line of sight yet didn't have an alternate lookout on the bridge or the tug's bow.
The fishermen, distracted by their work, didn't realize the tug/barge had altered direction toward them. Plastic sheeting that hung around their boat's stern to protect them from the elements also reduced the watermen's visibility on deck.
When fishing in or near a large shipping channel, avoiding a collision is every mariner's responsibility. Although you may have the right of way in a meeting or crossing, draft constraints may prevent a larger vessel from heeding that right of way.
Never assume a larger vessel's radar will detect your boat; it may not produce a good radar signature. Fishing boats are encouraged to use a radar reflector. When operating at night or during other times of reduced visibility, make sure you have proper navigation lights and sound producing devices. Many larger vessels have blind spots; be prepared to navigate accordingly. Never assume you have and will be given the right of way. Keep a proper watch, navigate safe, and 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.
The following was released by the Maine Department of Marine Resources on Jan. 22:
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