Checklists: onboard safety equipment, procedures and drills

Based on U.S. Coast Guard reports

On Aug. 1, 2003, a 66-foot commercial shrimping vessel out of Fort Myers Beach, Fla., got underway en route to Stock Island, Fla. The master was the only person aboard, and this was the first time he had operated the vessel. A representative of the vessel's parent company had instructed the master to have a leaking shaft packing repaired. The vessel's owner stated to investigators that he had no knowledge the vessel was sent for repairs.

At approximately 1 p.m. and 20 miles offshore, the master heard what he thought was the high-level bilge alarm in the vessel's machinery space. He proceeded to the engine room to investigate and observed water up to the valve covers on the main engine. While looking for a means to pump the water from the vessel's bilge, all power onboard was lost, indicating that the flooding had reached the vessel's batteries.

Because this was the master's first time operating this vessel, he was unfamiliar with the location of the equipment onboard. Unable to control the flooding, he thought it was best to abandon ship. A nearby fishing vessel offered assistance, so the master embarked and stood by while his vessel sank. He was brought back to his home port around 8:30 p.m.

Back onshore, the master notified the parent company of the sinking. The next morning, the vessel owner was notified of the incident. Neither the parent company nor the vessel owner notified the Coast Guard, because a good Samaritan had safely recovered the vessel driver.

On Aug. 2, a recreational fishing boat recovered a life raft with the fishing vessel's name on it, and Coast Guard Station Fort Myers Beach initiated a search and rescue case. The station dispatched a 41-foot utility boat, and Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater sent an HH-60 helicopter to investigate the debris field. Station Fort Myers Beach was able to trace the name stenciled on the life raft. They contacted the parent company, which confirmed that the vessel sank the previous night but the skipper had been safely recovered.

On Aug. 8, 2003, the Coast Guard interviewed the master and the parent company to discuss the circumstances surrounding the sinking of the fishing vessel. Neither the master nor the parent company could confirm if the vessel was carrying an EPIRB or life raft, as required by federal regulations. The master stated he never tried to call for help or notify the Coast Guard because he was not sure if the vessel's radio worked.

Lessons learned

The master could not provide any verifiable information as to the exact cause of the vessel's sinking. He did state that the vessel's engine room suddenly began to flood, causing the engine to shut down and the vessel to sink rapidly. The owner and the parent company stated that they did not report the incident to the Coast Guard because they did not feel it was necessary. As a result of the lack of information surrounding the casualty, the Coast Guard could not make a determination on the likely cause of the flooding.

Without familiarity or preparation, the master was in a dangerous situation. Moreover, taxpayer dollars and federal assets were expended as the Coast Guard conducted an unnecessary search.

Beyond having the necessary stores and supplies onboard, being prepared for a trip must include having the required safety equipment in operational condition, having the required lifesaving and survival equipment ready for use, and having completed the required safety orientation, safety instruction and emergency drills.

Requirements for commercial fishing vessels are found in the regulations at 46 Code of Federal Regulations Part 28. But having all the required safety, lifesaving, and survival equipment on your vessel is not enough. You must know how to use it in an emergency. The Coast Guard recommends that each person complete fishing vessel safety and survival awareness training. Statistics show that those who have and use safety and survival equipment are more than twice as likely to save their vessel and survive a casualty.

To ensure you are prepared for your fishing trip, contact your local Coast Guard fishing vessel safety examiner for a courtesy, no-fault dockside safety examination. For more safety information or to view other references, visit our Web site at

Required safety and lifesaving equipment

Life preservers or other PFDs
– Ring life buoys
– A survival craft (as applicable)
– Distress signals
– Fire extinguishers

The equipment must be marked as required, in good working order, ready for immediate use, and maintained and inspected in accordance with the regulations or manufacturers guidelines/industry standards.

Safety orientation

Before getting underway, the master of a vessel is responsible for ensuring each person onboard receives a safety orientation on at least these items:

– Survival craft station(s) and
– Fire, emergency and abandon-ship
– Stowage and donning of immersion suits
– Procedures for making distress calls
– Individual responsibilities during an emergency
– Procedures for rough weather and
– Procedures for anchoring, man
overboard, and firefighting

Onboard drills

At least every 30 days, instruction and drills must be conducted onboard the vessel as if there were an actual emergency, including participation by all individuals and use of emergency equipment for:

– Abandoning the vessel
– Fighting a fire in different locations on the vessel
– Recovering an individual from the water
– Minimizing the effects of unintentional flooding
– Launching survival craft and recovering lifeboats
– Donning immersions suits and other PFDs
– Donning a firefighting outfit and an SCBA
– Making a voice radio distress call and using visual distress signals
– Activating the general alarm
– Reporting inoperative alarm systems and fire detection systems

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