If talk isn't cheap, not talking can also be costly

From Transportation Safety Board of Canada reports

The last thing any fisherman likes to think about is someone coming to his rescue (that is, unless he is currently in distress). But emergencies do happen. And in response, coast guards and good Samaritans the world over come to the aid of vessels and mariners in peril. However the aid may come, the risk isn't over until you're safely in port.

Such was the case on a late March day when a crew of six left Îles-de-la-Madeleine, Quebec, on a 41-foot aluminum trawler to take part in the annual Gulf of St. Lawrence seal hunt. With Canadian Coast Guard ice-breaking vessels on hand in the area the next day, the crew headed toward Nova Scotia's St. Paul Island.

On the morning of March 28, the fishing boat went astern in a patch of ice, which damaged its steering. It could no longer turn to starboard. A nearby ice-breaking boat sent two engineers to troubleshoot the steering. They determined the problem was below the waterline as well as external.

The sealing crew was granted an escort that would tow them to the nearest practical port. Within a few hours, another Coast Guard boat arrived and was quickly passing a towline and bridle to the crew of the trawler. Winds were out of the northeast at 10 to 15 knots. Skies were overcast with light snow flurries; the air was about 30 degrees F.

As is typical in towing through the ice, the towline was kept short. It consisted of a two-legged bridle, each leg shackled to a double-braided nylon towing hawser. Each of the eyes of the nylon bridle were passed through fairleads and secured over the mooring bitts on the bow (port and starboard) of the fishing boat. On the icebreaker, the towing hawser ran through the aft centerline fairlead and was secured around the towing bollard. This arrangement resulted in a stern-to-stem towing distance of about 72 feet.

Three members of the fishing vessel crew, including the captain, were resting down below, and three crew members were in the wheelhouse. On the Coast Guard boat, two lookouts were posted by the towing bollard.

They got under way and headed toward the location of another vessel in distress that reported it was taking on water. That vessel would steam alongside the towing configuration in case their situation worsened.

The trawler's wheelhouse lookouts occasionally engaged the clutch and used their engine in an attempt to assist the tow. The Coast Guard crew was not aware the sealing crew was using this tactic. Shortly after a fourth crew member on the fishing boat turned in, the towing train entered an area of open drift ice, which meant the pack ice was no longer keeping the towed vessel in line with the Coast Guard boat. Soon the sealers' boat was sheered to port and well off the centerline of the towing vessel.

Just before the trawler struck a large piece of rigid ice square on the stem, the skipper of the Coast Guard boat put the motors full astern and ordered the towline be severed. At the same time, someone at the helm of the fishing boat engaged its engine on full power in an attempt to break the ice. However, the result was that the boat was partially driven into the ice, reducing stability and buoyancy. The boat capsized on its starboard side and began flooding through a partially open wheelhouse window.

For some time after the capsizing, the propeller continued to spin quickly. Three members of the crew escaped, but only two surfaced in the icy water. They were quickly scooped up by the vessel that was steaming alongside, the crew of which had witnessed the capsizing.

The Coast Guard boat launched its fast-rescue craft to look for additional survivors. When the craft went alongside the overturned vessel, its crew could hear noises coming from the hull, so they requested divers. They still heard noises in the hull more than 80 minutes after the capsizing. After doing what they could to stabilize the hull, they decided to cut access ports into the hull, but the depth and close spacing of the framing that divided the hull into watertight compartments made access impossible.

The bodies of the three crew members trapped inside were eventually recovered from the overturned vessel. A fourth crew member is presumed dead. The two crew members who were rescued by the third vessel suffered minor hypothermia.

Lessons learned

The most important lesson in this incident may be that just because a well-equipped vessel with a highly trained crew has come to your aid does not mean open waters are any less perilous, especially in the case of floating debris or ice.

When working in concert with another crew in any type of rescue or towing situation, make sure all efforts or changes in assistance are undertaken with clear communication between the two crews.

Had the Coast Guard crew known the fishing vessel crew was engaging the clutch and using their engine to assist in the tow, they may have insisted on maintaining control over the propulsion.

In simulated towing trials, using similar boats, with the tow's engine idle and the clutch disengaged, the tow had a strong tendency to stay behind the towing vessel. The trial crews then used various rudder angles to duplicate the sheer to port, but they were unable to do so with rudder angle alone. Only when the tow engaged the clutch — without any increase in engine speed or application of throttle — did it sheer noticeably and quickly to port.

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