Caught under the weather

Based on U.S. Coast Guard reports

The loss of a fishing boat from capsizing or sinking often occurs very rapidly. Severe weather can cause or exacerbate the emergency, leaving the crew little time to react — to save themselves or the boat. In bad weather, there is no replacement for easy access to safety gear and the training to don or deploy it quickly.

During a February fishing trip in the Gulf of Mexico, a 32-foot fiberglass bandit-rigged boat was in the vicinity of a popular fishing ground known as the Elbow, about 75 miles west of John's Pass, off St. Petersburg, Fla. The bandit boat was loaded with about 1,000 pounds of amberjack after a successful weeklong trip. The season was scheduled to close in a few days, but the skipper and his crewman intended to head back to the dock the next day.

The skipper briefly rendezvoused with a sistership and discussed their trip and plans before steaming toward home. After the vessels separated, the skipper decided to try to top off his catch with some mango snapper on the way back in. The weather became rougher, with a low-pressure system running though the area. By the next morning the weather was deteriorating, creating 5- to 10-foot seas, wind gusts up to 40 knots, and periods of intense squalls. The National Weather Service issued a special marine warning later that day for a tornado watch in the area.

The skipper hailed the sister boat on VHF radio with a wake-up call at about 7:30 that morning. That was the last known contact from the bandit boat. Later that morning, the crew on the sistership made several attempts to contact the skipper. The owner of the boat also tried to contact the skipper via satellite phone. The owner stated that the satellite phone was not always charged, so there was no reason to be concerned with the safety of the crew and vessel at that time. The sistership's crew was not immediately alarmed, as they assumed the boat was making her way into the pass and port.

By the next day, when the bandit boat had not shown up at their dock, could not be located elsewhere in the port, and did not answer any calls, the owner reported the vessel overdue.

Coast Guard search and rescue resources located the superstructure of the boat and recovered the body of the crewman with a partially donned PFD the following morning about 20 miles west of St. Petersburg. The skipper could not be located. There was never any mayday heard from the vessel, its EPIRB was never activated, and its life raft had not been deployed.

Lessons learned

The bandit boat had been reported to be in good condition and seaworthy for the area by a marine surveyor about a year earlier when it was evaluated for insurance purposes. The owner reported that the manually activated category II EPIRB was located near the helm and should have been easy to access and activate. A life raft and the PFDs were secured under the roof structure, and were probably more difficult to access and deploy. The EPIRB was properly registered. Other safety and survival equipment were believed to be in full compliance with regulatory requirements.

The cause of this accident is unknown, but the weather was likely the predominant factor. Vessels of this size fishing in this area often ride their anchor in conditions like those reported. If anchored up to ride out the weather, the bandit boat could have been swamped by waves coming over the stern, causing the superstructure to separate, thereby flooding and sinking the boat. The superstructure was not recovered for analysis.

The body of the crewman recovered had a PFD that was not properly fastened. The condition of the crewman, that no other boats report hearing a mayday call, that the EPIRB had not been activated or recovered, and that the life raft had not been deployed or recovered suggest the boat was lost very quickly. In addition to the lack of a debris field, this points to severe weather as the primary factor in this tragedy.

Monitoring weather conditions at sea can give the crew time to don life jackets, or at least have them prepared to do so. Safety and survival equipment must be accessible and easy to deploy. All vessels should carry automatically deployed EPIRBs and life rafts, especially on the high seas or in cold-water regions.

Be aware, be prepared, be safe! Return to fish another day!

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