When great isn't good enough

Based on U.S. Coast Guard reports

Even on a boat with a safety conscious owner and operator, accidents will happen. Vessels that are maintained in top condition, have all the latest safety and survival equipment, and have passed a Coast Guard safety examination suffer casualties. Crew members who have completed emergency instructions and drills and safety orientations get injured and die while fishing. Bad things can happen to a good vessel and a good crew. The chain of actions and reactions to any incident at sea can lead to disaster or deliverance.

On a November afternoon, the skipper and crewman of a steel-hulled, wheelhouse-forward stern trawler were fishing for dogfish about 70 miles off the coast of Maine. The 48-footer rode low in the water with a draft of about 7 feet. The air and water temperature were both about 50 degrees Fahrenheit with southwest winds at 15 to 20 knots. Waves were about 5 feet. The trawler was traveling with the seas and the wind.

With the outriggers down, the skipper switched on the autopilot, at about 3 knots heading northeast, so he could be at the stern to assist with hauling in the net. The haul was near maximum for the vessel, about 3,000 to 5,000 pounds. The stern board had been removed to bring the catch onboard, and they began securing the fish, which had caused a slight starboard list.

Shortly after the haul, the vessel took a wave on the port quarter, and water came on deck through the stern where the board had not yet been replaced. The wave knocked loose several fish trays and some of the catch, blocking the freeing ports. The crewman tried to clear the freeing ports as the skipper ran to the pilothouse.

Seconds later, a second wave came over the stern, swamping the vessel, and causing it to heel hard to port. The skipper realized it was going to capsize and yelled for the crewman to get to the starboard side. As she went over, the skipper was able to jump clear, but the crewman was pulled under. He came to the surface shortly after. Neither man was wearing a PFD.

They tried to climb onto the overturned hull. Unsuccessful, they swam for the stern board when it floated to the surface. The stern board would not support both of them, so the skipper swam back to the vessel, assuming the crewman stayed with the stern board. After several attempts, the skipper was able to pull himself onto the hull. A short time later, he saw the crewman floating facedown in the water and away from the vessel. His death was ruled as drowning by the local medical examiners office.

About two hours later, at sunset, the vessel sank, putting the skipper back into the water. He hung onto some floating debris until the inflatable life raft floated free of the trawler. The EPIRB did not deploy. The skipper was able to get into the life raft and shoot a parachute flare when he thought he saw an airplane, but there was no response. Several hours later he saw lights of a vessel and shot off another flare. The vessel rescued the skipper and notified the Coast Guard. The next morning, with the skipper still aboard, the good Samaritan vessel located and recovered the body of the crewman.

Lessons learned

The vessel had satisfactorily completed a voluntary dockside safety exam and was issued a fishing vessel safety decal by the Coast Guard six months prior to the incident. At that time, the vessel was in full compliance with all safety equipment requirements, and it appeared to be in good material condition.

The vessel's life raft and EPIRB were serviced three months prior to the incident. A yard maintenance and servicing were performed on the vessel two months prior to the incident. This is indicative of an owner/operator who keeps his vessel in good condition and keeps all required safety and survival equipment in serviceable condition.

After the catch was hauled aboard, the stern board was not immediately replaced. This allowed extra water to wash over the deck from the wave that hit the port quarter. The wave knocked unsecured fish trays across the deck, blocking the two aft freeing ports. The forward four freeing ports had been closed, so there was little opportunity for water to drain from the deck. When the second wave hit, shipping more water onto the deck and shifting the load of fish, the vessel lost stability. Ensuring deck gear and equipment are properly secured until ready for use and all freeing ports are clear will help a vessel maintain stability.

Placing the vessel on autopilot so the skipper can help with the haul-back may be a common practice with small crews. Doing so in a following sea can put the boat in a vulnerable position, as it is more exposed to yawing, and there is no one at the helm to respond quickly. By the time the skipper reached the wheelhouse to correct the vessel's heading, she was already beginning to capsize. He was unable to reach a radio to issue a mayday.

Neither the skipper nor the crewman was wearing a PFD while working on deck, not an uncommon practice. Their immersion suits were stowed in the wheelhouse, and the EPIRB was located on the starboard side of the pilothouse. Because events happened so quickly, the skipper was unable to retrieve the suits or EPIRB before he had to jump into the water. This left the two men in the water without any survival gear or emergency communication equipment. Having PFDs available where they were working may have saved the crewman.

In this incident, the EPIRB did not deploy, come to the surface and broadcast an emergency signal. The inflatable life raft did not deploy until after the trawler sank. Hydrostatic releases may not function until the device reaches depths up to 25 feet. So if a vessel is only capsized, the release may not be exposed to enough pressure to actuate and deploy the raft or EPIRB. Or if the emergency equipment becomes entangled on the vessel, it may not break free. It can be helpful to know at what settings your hydrostatic releases are designed to actuate.

Be aware of what you are doing out there, and be safe.

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