Vessel exams prevent flooding, the most common cause of sinking

Based on U.S. Coast Guard reports

At approximately 1:30 p.m. on Jan. 13, 2004, a gillnet-rigged fishing vessel out of Gloucester, Mass., began taking on water. The 38-foot 14-gross-ton wooden-hulled vessel had a crew of three, including the master.

The hull of the vessel was constructed of mahogany carvel planking fastened to white oak frames with silicon-bronze wood screws. According to the master, the vessel was refastened in 2000 and had not been hauled out of the water since December 2003. No further maintenance work or dockside safety examinations had been conducted on the vessel since that time.

On Jan. 13, the fishing vessel departed the port of Gloucester at approximately 3:30 a.m. for a one-day fishing voyage off Cape Ann. The vessel was returning to Gloucester on a course at 5 knots with approximately 3,000 pounds of fish onboard. The weather conditions were ordinary for the time of year, with visibility at 10 nm, wind WSW at 25 knots, seas of 3 to 5 feet and an air temperature of 28 degrees F.

At approximately 1:30 p.m., the master heard the bilge high water alarm. The bilge alarm activated when the second submersible electric bilge pump began operating. The first pump was installed at a lower position in the bilges and operated intermittently under normal conditions to remove water accumulated from rainfall, shipping seas and other expected sources. However, the second pump did not normally activate. After hearing the alarm, the master looked over the side and observed two steady streams of water from the pump discharge outlets, confirming that both automatic bilge pumps were working. He then looked through a hatch in the engine room into the bilge area and saw more water than he expected. This discovery prompted him to manually activate the third submersible electric bilge pump and to retrieve the portable gas-powered dewatering pump from one of the bunks in the forward berthing compartment.

As the master was retrieving the gas-powered pump, he noticed what appeared to be water seeping through the ceiling panels in the forward berthing compartment on the port side, approximately 10 feet aft of the stem. He estimated the location to be below the waterline about four or five planks up from the keel. He also noticed that the panels appeared to surge inward from apparent water pressure, with a marked increase in seepage as the vessel pitched down into the seas. These observations led the master to conclude that the vessel was taking on water at an unknown and unsafe rate from a sprung plank below the waterline.

While the master was rigging the dewatering pump, he ordered his deckhands to don their immersion suits and put the life raft over the side and inflate it so it would be ready if they needed to abandon the vessel. The master also ordered the deckhands to begin throwing fish over the side to reduce draft and slow the flooding. After rigging the pump, the master made precautionary radio notifications to U.S. Coast Guard Station Gloucester and sister vessels in the area.

At approximately 2 p.m., the vessel began taking water over the stern and began to sink rapidly. The crew was forced to abandon the vessel directly into the sea and did not have time to get into the raft. They swam toward a sister vessel, which had positioned itself nearby after the radio call, and were picked up almost immediately. At approximately 2:18 p.m. the Coast Guard arrived on scene, but the vessel had already sunk. At approximately 4 p.m., the sister vessel moored at Station Gloucester and disembarked the crew of the sunken vessel. As a result of the quick thinking and actions of the crew, no one suffered any injuries.

Lessons learned

The apparent cause of the casualty was a sprung plank below the waterline on the vessel's port side, approximately 10 feet aft of the stem. The root cause of this casualty was deemed to be lack of routine maintenance.

From 1994 through 2004, 1,398 vessels were lost, and flooding was the leading contributor cause. Surprisingly, foul weather conditions was not the main cause of flooding situations. Failure to conduct routine preventive maintenance, out-hauling and safety examinations was the major factor in a third of vessel losses. Flooding accounted for 35 percent of vessel losses during the 11-year review period.

In addition to flooding losses, fire accounted for 20 percent of vessel losses. Flooding from hull and machinery failures and fires are preventable. Proper inspection and testing can identify areas that can lead to fire or flooding.

Such programs include minimizing fire hazards with routine housekeeping, repairing ignition sources, testing piping systems for leaks, replacing hoses before they leak, and making other timely machinery repairs. Taking precautions to prevent fires also ensures the reliability of the vessel's system, meaning no untimely breakdowns that waste time better spent fishing.

Inspection programs must also consider the major cause of vessel loss by paying special attention to through-hull fittings, the hull itself, corrosion and wastage or loose fasteners, inoperative high water alarms, and excessive leaking through packing glands.

The Coast Guard's no-fault, voluntary dockside examination program continues to be our most effective outreach component. As supported in the story, there is an inverse relationship between vessel examination activity and vessels lost during a given year. However, there are other options — self-inspection or marine surveyors. Smaller and less complicated vessels may be adequately examined by the operator. Larger and more complex vessels may benefit from experienced professionals who can spot potential problems and make recommendations for repairs and replacement.

Preventing casualties is good business sense. Whichever method you choose — a Coast Guard voluntary dockside exam, a self-examination, or an inspection from a marine surveyor — will reduce the risk of vessel loss. An examination of the vessel prior to leaving the dock is always time well spent. Besides promoting reliable and profitable fishing operations, the safety of the entire crew depends on the vessel returning safely to port.

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