National Fisherman

A wheel out of motion

Based on U.S. Coast Guard reports.

Although the most conscientious fishermen check to see that all equipment is operating properly, safety and survival items have been inspected and tested as required, and gear and stores are properly stowed until they will be needed, something can still go wrong. In the worst cases, several factors come into play.

In late April, a skipper and crewman who had worked together for many years on a reportedly well-maintained steel-hulled 38-footer rigged for trolling and longlining left a Gulf of Alaska port and headed to a protected bay to anchor for the night near the site they were going to fish. They carried all the required safety and survival equipment stored in accessible locations.

The next morning they left the bay for their fishing grounds roughly 20 miles west of Cape Ommaney in Southeast Alaska's Sumner Strait. The weather was generally clear with wind from the northwest at about 18 knots, gusts up to about 30 knots and air and water temperatures at 45 degrees. The waves were 6 to 8 feet, and the current was 1 to 2 knots.

En route to the fishing area, they encountered steering problems. The boat would steer to port and center but not to starboard. The skipper investigated the problem and tried to fix it. Suddenly, the problem disappeared and he regained full steering.

Later that day, they were hauling a set and turned to port to move the line forward. They had been operating with the trolling poles out and stabilizers in the water. But at this point the starboard pole was raised to allow access to the gear during the haul. This gave the vessel a list to port. The turn put the vessel broadside to the waves. They began taking water over the starboard gunwale.

They tried to turn back into the wind but the wheel did not respond; the steering problem had returned. The deck was now awash. Uncleaned fish on the deck shifted to port, despite the checkers, adding to the list. Water covered the coaming of the fish hold's main hatch, and the hatch cover washed away. With downflooding into the hold, the boat was beginning to sink.

Realizing how serious the situation was, the skipper directed the crewman to gather the survival suits while he tried to deploy the life raft. The crewman donned his suit and waited for the skipper. The skipper tried to release the life raft from the top of the bait house but could not get it out of the cradle, probably because of the approximate 45-degree list. The crewman then went to the VHF radio to make a mayday call, giving their position. He wasn't sure what channel the radio was set on, and he got no response to his call.

The crewman then moved to the aft deck near the fish hold to assist the skipper, and abandoned ship. It sank quickly. The two were reunited in the water, both wearing survival suits. They grabbed a flagpole, buoy bags, and other floating debris to make themselves more visible.

When the vessel sank, the EPIRB and life raft were released. The raft surfaced about 50 to 75 yards away. They tried to swim for it, but the wind carried it out of their reach. The skipper was becoming hypothermic because he had water in his suit from adjusting it. Soon he lost his grip on the floating debris. By this time it was getting dark.

The Coast Guard picked up the EPIRB signal, determined the location, and launched a search and rescue helicopter. Another fishing vessel in the area responded to a broadcast to help in the search. About 30 minutes later, the helicopter located the empty life raft. It took another 20 minutes to locate the skipper and crewman in the water. The crewman was clinging to an orange buoy bag, but the skipper was floating horizontally a short distance away. The crewman was recovered by the good Samaritan fishing boat. A rescue swimmer from the helicopter recovered the skipper who was unresponsive. The skipper did not survive.

Lessons learned

The skipper and crewman did the right thing by trying to release the life raft, though unsuccessful, and donning their immersion suits before entering the water. Once in the water, they gathered debris to make themselves more visible to rescuers.

They may have been rescued sooner had they made a successful mayday call early on. However, often when an emergency situation arises, the skipper and crew focus first on correcting the problem. A call for help is made when nothing more can be done. But every case is different.

Training and awareness will enhance the crew's ability to survive an emergency through practice and honed skills. Both the skipper and crewman were quite familiar with the safety equipment and location of the survival gear. The skipper was safety conscious and had completed drill conductor training.

The root cause was the steering problem. The steering failure was investigated and self-corrected, but the cause was never determined, and thus apparently never fixed. Had the problem been fully corrected, they may have been able to steer the vessel out of the troughs and reduce the amount of water coming over the gunwales that led to the flooding and sinking.

However, if not for the crewman's experience and training, both aboard likely would have been lost in the sinking.

If you prepare yourself for various emergencies and contingencies through training, you can significantly increase your chances of survival. The more you train, the more automatic your response will be in an emergency situation.

More than half of commercial fishing fatalities result when the vessel is lost due to a fire or flooding, capsizing, and/or sinking. Make sure your survival equipment is ready to use and you have trained in donning or deploying the equipment, along with conducting emergency drills. Be prepared; be safe!

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