Safe transit: communications key in bridge crossing

Based on U.S. Coast Guard reports

More than half of all fishing deaths result from vessels sinking after flooding or capsizing. In these cases, there is often little time to react, don lifesaving gear and abandon the vessel. Almost half of all vessel losses result from flooding and capsizing. Adverse weather and sea conditions often are a contributing factor. In these instances, the vessel is more often in transit than engaged in fishing.

On an early morning in January 2005, a documented 40-foot fiberglass shrimper was transiting Galveston Bay, Texas. The captain and one crew member were on board. The vessel was making way to cross under a railroad causeway bridge when the bridge started to lower. The captain took the vessel out of gear to slow down and avoid becoming entangled by the bridge. Unfortunately, a strong current set the vessel toward the bridge and its fendering system. Rigging on the vessel became fouled on the fendering, and the strong current caused the vessel to capsize.

The captain was able to escape the wheelhouse through one of the forward windows and hang on to the overturned vessel until he was rescued. The crew member was not able to make it out of the boat, and he drowned trying to escape.

It is possible that the captain was unable to back down the vessel or get it turned away from the bridge and its fendering system when the bridge started to lower because the current was too strong and the vessel too close to the bridge to allow for such maneuvering. The accident report does not explain why the captain didn't know the bridge was about to lower when he was approaching it. We do not know if the crew member was aware of the situation and what, if anything, could have enabled him to escape the vessel before capsizing. Nor do we know if the captain thought the vessel would get caught up on the fendering system and capsize so quickly.

These questions may not be answered here, but we can examine the circumstances of this incident for lessons learned and how you can be prepared should a similar type incident occur with your vessel. Situational awareness and some general rules will help you to be ready to respond in an emergency.

Lessons learned

Regulations for drawbridges and their operation are discussed in the U.S. Coast Pilot. Some bridges remain open or closed for extended periods of time, or need not be opened for vessel traffic at certain times. Signal options for a bridge opening include sound methods, visual methods and radiotelephone. The applicable edition of the Coast Pilot will spell out the means for signaling the bridge tender for a particular bridge in the area you plan to transit.

In this case, the bridge tender monitored VHF-FM channel 16 and had a listed working channel and call sign for requesting a bridge opening. There was no record of any contact between the vessel and the bridge tender before the bridge was lowered and prior to the casualty. As a vessel operator, you must make sure the navigation channel is clear for you to proceed. You cannot assume a bridge will stay open because your vessel is approaching it. A simple radio call may have averted this casualty.

Communication also is important with the crew of your vessel. In situations with foreseeable complications, the crew should be advised and kept informed of what is happening and what may happen. Time is critical in being prepared and able to respond in an emergency. In this case, records do not indicate if the crew member was warned of the developing situation, what activity he was involved in at the time or where he was located on the boat. The sequence of events in this case apparently occurred relatively quickly, as often is the case. If there was a timely warning, the action taken did not save him.

Finally, as an operator, you must be ready to take evasive action. Whether it is in response to the track of another vessel or your course being blocked, such as by a bridge being lowered, you must know how to react. And you must be aware of how your vessel will be affected by wind, waves, tides and currents. Know how you can quickly maneuver to avoid a collision or grounding.

Be aware, be safe, and be prepared and ready to react.

For more information, visit the Coast Guard's Fishing Vessel Safety Web site at

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