Storm turns seas deadly

One October morning, the skipper of a 50-foot longliner relieved a crewman who had been standing watch for several hours. The longliner’s four-man crew had been fishing blackcod off Alaska’s Aleutian chain for about a week.

A storm center that was supposed to pass to the south had unexpectedly tracked farther north. Around 9 a.m., the wind was out of the west at a sustained 60 knots, with gusts to 80, and seas were out of the WSW with 35- to 40–foot swells. The skipper, knowing he needed to get out of the weather, headed due east.

Meanwhile, a mate standing watch on a 600-foot-long merchant vessel was tracking the longliner. By 9:45 a.m., the merchant ship had closed to within a mile of the longliner and the mate saw the smaller vessel was laboring.

A large swell then lifted the longliner’s stern up; she slid down the face of the wave, veered to port and turned beam-to the seas. The merchant vessel’s mate immediately alerted his captain.

On the longliner, the skipper sent the crewman who had earlier stood watch to try to restart the main engine before making a mayday call on channel 16.

Water was rushing in through the vents was flooding the engine room. Attempts to restart the engine failed, and the crewman notified the skipper that the situation looked bleak. The crewman retrieved and donned his immersion suit.

At around 9:50 a.m., the merchant vessel’s captain arrived on the bridge just in time to hear the longliner’s mayday call and sounded the general alarm.

The captain called the Coast Guard and relayed the longliner’s position and other pertinent information. The Coast Guard alerted a nearby cutter and launched a helicopter and two C-130 planes.

Sometime between 9:50 and 9:55 a.m., the longliner sank. The chief mate maneuvered the merchant vessel upwind of the longliner’s position and saw a life raft drifting in the debris field. Lookouts on the merchant vessel soon spotted three men in the water.

The captain advised the Coast Guard that the storm conditions made a shipboard pick-up unfeasible. The Coast Guard helicopter arrived at 11 a.m. and by noon had found and hoisted three crewmen out of the water. One of the crew and the skipper were unresponsive.

The helicopter flew the crew to a shoreside medical facility. The two unresponsive men could not be revived. The third crewman, who was the only one able to properly don his immersion suit, was treated for moderate hypothermia and excess saltwater ingestion and later released. A nearly 47-hour search for the fourth crewman was unsuccessful.

Lessons learned

When encountering heavy seas, secure all fishing gear and cargo and head the boat into the seas to minimize water on deck and vessel motion.

Carry an effective sea anchor that can keep the vessel’s bow into the seas should the boat lose propulsion or steering capability. If icing occurs and cannot be controlled or removed in a timely manner, remove your vessel from the area immediately and head for shelter. Closely monitor weather and sea conditions. When forecasts are dire, seek refuge from the elements as quickly as possible.

Practicing procedures for operating in stormy seas can put the odds on your side and help you fish safe.    

This article is based on U.S. Coast Guard reporting and is intended to bring safety issues to the attention of our readers. It is not intended to judge or reach conclusions regarding the ability or capacity of any person, living or dead, or any boat or piece of equipment.


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