Calm under pressure

From U.S. Coast Guard reports

Late one February evening, the seven-man crew of a 106-foot steel trawler was making a last tow 60 miles off the New Jersey coast in deteriorating weather conditions. The skipper decided to haul his gear and ride out the weather.

Around 10:30 p.m., the trawler's mate and engineer entered the wheelhouse after making his rounds in the machinery and engine spaces. He told the skipper all was secure below and that he saw no more water than usual in the bilges. Satisfied, the skipper passed the wheel watch to the mate.

About 2 a.m., the generator started faltering, and the lights began flickering. Grabbing a flashlight, the mate headed for the engine room. There, water was rising toward the main engine, and an electrical fire in the genset was producing dense smoke. The mate hurried to inform the skipper.

Sensing that the vessel was riding differently, the skipper, a 22-year veteran fisherman, was already up when the mate arrived. The mate told him about the rising water and the main generator.

The mate next tried firing up the auxiliary generator, to no avail. He told the skipper that he couldn't get the auxiliary generator started and that water was still coming in. The skipper instructed the mate to wake up the other five crew members in case they needed to abandon ship.

The skipper went to assess the engine room flooding. He saw a substantial amount of smoke and water rising quickly. He estimated four to five feet of water was in the bilges and that a quarter of the main engine was under water.

At approximately 2:15 a.m., the skipper returned to the wheelhouse, activated the EPIRB, and made mayday calls. He told the mate to have the crew don their survival suits.

Checking the engine room again roughly 10 minutes later, he found the main engine entirely under water. The skipper decided they must abandon ship.

He instructed the mate to launch the life raft. Once all crew members had donned survival suits and gathered supplies they entered the life raft. The skipper followed, EPIRB in hand.

The crew put distance between themselves and the trawler, watching the boat sink slowly. All they could do was wait.

Upon receiving the EPIRB signal, the Coast Guard dispatched helicopters and an aircraft from three air stations. Within two hours, two HH-65 helicopters arrived at the trawler's last known position, quickly locating the raft.

They transported the crew to the nearest Coast Guard air station. The mate, who was suffering from smoke inhalation, sprains and bruises, was transported to a local hospital and released.

Lessons learned

The cause of the flooding is unknown. Though the vessel was lost, the skipper made good decisions at the right times when judging whether to abandon ship. Once he made the call, the skipper ensured evacuation was carried out calmly and methodically.

This well-maintained vessel still fell prey to the harsh, unforgiving and unpredictable ocean environment. This case shows the importance of having updated and operable safety equipment onboard, and of knowing how to use such equipment.

Further it was evident that the crew was well trained, conducted emergency drills, and knew how to react calmly in an emergency. Work hard, train well and fish safe.

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