National Fisherman

Close call fails to impress safety board

Based on Transportation Safety Board of Canada reports

For a boat to sink it must first fill with water. This came happen despite our best efforts — because of weather or structural failure, for example — or it can result from our incompetence, in which case the possibilities are endless. Occasionally we are spared the price of our follies.

In June 2004, a 40-foot crabber with a crew of six loaded on more than 11,000 pounds of crab in about two days and began steaming for home on the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Quebec.

En route they received a call from their company asking them to stop at Anticosti Island, where they picked up an aluminum launch, two outboard motors, and 1,300 pounds of lobster in 13 crates.

Three company employees boarded, as well, and for the record, the souls on board now outnumbered the capacity of the vessel's life raft.

The crew stowed the crates of lobster in the port live-well tank, and the seawater circulation system was started. Later that evening, the skipper inspected the afterdeck and said everything seemed normal.

Shortly after midnight, however, he noticed a change in the vessel's handling, and, upon going aft, found the boat had a pronounced trim by the stern.

The water level alarm had not sounded in the wheelhouse — investigators determined that it was non-operational (Broken? Turned off?) — but in any event, the skipper went forward, turned off the seawater circulation system for the live-well tanks and returned to the lazarette, intending to close the discharge valves.

Alsa, the compartment had flooded and he could not access the valves.

He returned to the wheelhouse and told the crew to put on their immersion suits and gather on the fo'c'sle. He also broadcast a pan-pan, indicating that he had an urgent situation and needed assistance.

The Canadian Coast Guard's Marine Communications and Traffic Services office at Riviére-au-Renard broadcast a mayday relay even as the crabber's crew got the raft ready to launch.

In addition to the Coast Guard response, which included two aircraft and a cutter, the crabber's company dispatched a boat and within a couple of hours, it had rendezvoused with the flooded crabber.

The skipper asked the rescue boat to come alongside and transfer the crew, but the rescue boat's captain felt that fishing gear would make the maneuver unsafe.

(Bear in mind that the flooded boat was making way at about 4 knots to keep its stern from sinking any lower in the water.)

It was then agreed that the crabber would launch its seven-person life raft to transfer the crew. Given the crabber's way, however, the raft capsized as soon as it hit the water. The crew was unable to hang onto the painter, and apparently unable to cleat it off, and so the raft was lost. Fortunately, no one was aboard.

So much for the transfer of personnel.

Shortly after 4 a.m., the crabber reached the approach to the Natashquan River, where it was joined by a Coast Guard cutter.

The cutter was able to take seven people off; the skipper and one crewman remained aboard and ran the flooded vessel up onto a low bank of rocks near a wharf.

They closed the discharge valves in the lazarette, dropped in a submersible pump and refloated the boat.

Lessons learned

We now know that similar occurrences had taken place on this vessel in 2002 and, most recently, a month before, when the fish hold flooded after the seawater circulation system for the live-well tanks was started, prompting Canada's Transportation Safety Board to refer to "the lack of a safety culture among fishers."

A different crew was involved in each case, and this was this skipper's first trip, prompting the board to plead for better training, as in, we believe, any training at all!

In its findings related to the incident, the board observed that:

• the crew started the seawater circulation system not knowing how to use it;

• a gradual flow of water ran from the live-well tanks to the fish hold and then to the lazarette because the sluice valves connecting these compartments were all open. When the six discharge outlets in the transom eventually went under as the boat trimmed aft, seawater flowed into the live-well tanks through these outlets; and,

• downflooding occurred when the fish hold hatch cover fell overboard.

Incidentally, the agency also noted that an inspection by Transport Canada failed to identify shortcomings in the vessel's bilge pumping system.

A year earlier, the board recommended that Transport Canada — in coordination with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, fishermen's associations and training institutions — develop a national strategy for establishing, maintaining and promoting a safety culture within the fishing industry.

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