Flood prevention made easy: be watertight

Based on U.S. Coast Guard reports

A fishing vessel with a captain and two other crewmen onboard departed its home port of Plymouth Harbor, Mass., on a Tuesday evening in November. The trip was intended primarily to test new fishing gear.

The 54 1/2-foot wooden-hull trawler had been purchased recently and was on its first fishing trip under new ownership. Nearly two years before, the vessel sank pier-side when a saltwater intake valve froze and broke, allowing seawater to enter the vessel. The previous owner completed extensive repairs, including installing new seacocks, refastening the entire bottom of the vessel and repairing the rudder.

The vessel was last hauled out three months prior to this trip for routine maintenance, including the installation of new sacrificial zincs, new bottom paint and reconditioning the propeller. One month prior, Marine Safety Consultants conducted an in-water marine survey. The surveyor did not inspect the underwater body of the vessel.

The external hull condition and the overall condition of the vessel were considered good. The surveyor recommended repacking the main shaft stuffing box and correcting several safety items prior to sailing. All of these safety items were corrected, and the stuffing box was repacked.

On this evening trip, the weather was forecast to deteriorate rapidly early in the morning, and the vessel had been out to sea for only a few hours. The captain intended to fish through the night and return to port prior to the arrival of the heavy weather.

He gave the crew a safety brief and a general vessel and gear familiarization prior to departure, because this was their first trip. At approximately 2 a.m., the nets became entangled and tore. The captain decided to return to port at approximately 4 a.m. During the transit inbound, approximately an hour later, the bilge alarm was activated. The captain silenced the alarm several times and continued heading inbound.

At approximately 7:30 a.m., the captain decided to check the engine room compartment and observed a considerable amount of water inside the compartment. He could not identify the source of the water. The vessel began listing to starboard. The captain alerted the two crew members that were sleeping below deck. They donned survival suits and grabbed the EPIRB.

At approximately 8 a.m., the vessel sank in about 200 feet of water. Once in the water, the three survivors stayed together and boarded the rescue raft. The captain shot three flares. The U.S. Coast Guard First District Command Center received a 406 EPIRB alert corresponding to the vessel. Search and rescue efforts began immediately.

A good Samaritan fishing boat in the area heard the Coast Guard broadcast and began searching for the sinking vessel. The vessel's crew saw the flares and reported to the First District Command Center. At 9:05 a.m., the good Samaritan vessel recovered the three crew members from the water and transported them to Plymouth. The crew of the ill-fated vessel received medical evaluations from a local hospital. They sustained no major casualties.

Lessons learned
The captain consciously silenced the bilge alarm, ignoring water intrusion indications. By the time he checked the engine room compartment, flooding had hampered the seaworthiness of the vessel.

Based on statements from the master of the vessel, the watertight integrity between the compartments was compromised. Although the vessel's subdivisions appeared to be intact, doors between the subdivisions were regularly kept open. Had proper subdivision been maintained, progressive flooding could have been contained or mitigated, and the vessel may have stayed afloat long enough to get assistance, possibly dewater and perhaps save the vessel.

Analysis of commercial fishing vessel casualties has shown that 75 to 80 percent of "stability related" sinkings are caused either by overloading or by flooding through deteriorated systems or boundaries, non-tight closures, or other openings added for operational convenience. And 70 percent of fatalities involving commercial fishing vessels are related to vessel stability.

A vessel's form, construction and subdivision provide stability and resistance to flooding. These design features are defeated if the skin of the vessel and the integrity of bulkheads are not maintained watertight. That integrity is a vital part of any ship's ability to resist flooding, and it should be checked by the crew periodically.

Successful prevention strategies include:
• Not allowing water on deck to accumulate, and making sure all hatches are properly maintained and dogged;
• Making sure doors to the deckhouse are watertight or weathertight, maintained properly and kept closed;
• Checking that all belowdeck fittings are free from corrosion and excessive leakage;
• Monitoring all high-water detection alarms; and
• Making sure all bulkhead penetrations are watertight.

The last measure to help prevent vessel loss from unintentional flooding is to ensure that when the unexpected occurs, the crew is prepared to deal with the situation quickly. This requires familiarity with and practice of damage control procedures. You can view examples of damage control kits at www.fishsafe.info.

The Coast Guard has multifaceted small vessel damage-control trainers available through your fishing vessel safety examiner and can be used in preparing crews to take effective action in flooding situations (www.uscg.mil/hq/g-m/nmc/

The use of survival equipment, the safety brief that the captain provided to the crew at the beginning of the trip and the timely release of the life raft proved to be critical for the survival of the crew.

The following measures are recommended for maintaining your vessel's watertight integrity.
• All openings in the hull and deckhouse should be fitted with watertight or weathertight closures.
• All watertight doors, hatches, windows and other closure devices must be maintained in good working condition.
• Train your crew as to the location and operation of all watertight and weathertight closures.
• Keep all watertight and weathertight closures secured except when in use, even in good weather. Remember, an unexpected wave or wind gust can swamp the vessel as easily as a severe storm.
• High-water alarms should be fitted in all hull compartments subject to flooding.
• If the vessel is fitted with large fish processing spaces that can trap water, they should be fitted with high-water alarms.

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