Put the Coast Guard on call
Few seasoned vessels can boast they have never taken on water. When and if you and your crew are faced with a flooding problem, your best course of action to avoid a life-threatening situation is to identify the source, control it with dewatering equipment, and slow or stop the flow.
However, if the flooding is compounded by factors like vessel instability, harsh weather and sea conditions, and crew fatigue, training may be the difference between safety and the loss of lives and vessel.
The skipper and crew members of a 50-foot 43-gross-ton steel longliner built in 1974 were halibut fishing about 70 miles east of Kodiak Island, Alaska. On this November trip, the vessel was loaded with about 35,000 pounds of fish.
The longliner had satisfactorily completed a Coast Guard dockside safety examination the previous year. The skipper and crew had conducted emergency drills, as well as safety and survival training. The vessel was less than 79 feet long, so it wasn't required to undergo a stability analysis.
At the time of the incident, the air temperature was about 20 degrees and winds were from the northwest at 15 to 20 knots, gusting to about 35 knots. Wave heights were generally 6 to 8 feet with some occasionally over 15 feet.
The vessel was steaming toward Kodiak when the crew detected a stability problem. The boat was listing to port and the skipper couldn't correct it.
Then water began entering the fuel tank. The longliner was also taking on water in a stern section the crew couldn't access.
Concerned about the vessel's and the crew's safety, the skipper called the Coast Guard. He advised them of his situation and set up a communication schedule. Another fishing vessel in the area was also alerted.
Deteriorating weather conditions were making matters worse. The skipper had crew members check their safety and survival equipment to ensure they were ready for use.
The vessel's list increased, and the stern was sitting lower in the water. The longliner started taking water over the deck, and the lazarette flooded. The skipper continued on course until the vessel lost steering and went dead in the water.
The skipper ordered the crew to don their immersion suits and prepare to abandon ship. By this time, a Coast Guard helicopter was on scene and another fishing vessel was standing by.
The skipper and crew were rescued and hoisted aboard the helicopter as the vessel started to sink by the stern. All five crew members were flown to Kodiak for medical checks.
In this incident, the vessel was lost, but the crew survived without any injuries or exposure. The skipper and crew were aware of their hazardous situation and acted to ensure their safety and survival.
They notified the Coast Guard and other area vessels in the early stages of an increasingly dangerous situation. The skipper made the call to abandon ship at the appropriate time — when help was on the scene and before the vessel sank.
A post-accident investigation revealed several factors that caused the sinking:
• The crew couldn't locate the source of flooding, and some spaces on the vessel couldn't be accessed for inspection.
• Dewatering wasn't effective or wasn't attempted in some spaces.
• Fatigue from the long periods of fishing and combating heavy seas may have affected the crew's ability to respond appropriately to the hazardous situation.
Maintaining your vessel and periodically inspecting unmanned spaces while underway can help reduce the chance of uncontrolled flooding. Ensure that high water alarms are functioning properly to alert you to water intrusion in both manned and unmanned spaces.
A safety conscious fisherman is aware of his surroundings, watches for hazardous situations, and is ready to respond in an emergency.
Train and drill for emergencies so that you are familiar with your safety and survival equipment, and you will be ready when — sooner or later — an emergency confronts you. Be safe, be prepared, be a survivor.