A quick turnover
A 62-foot stern-reel dragger set sail on a January morning with a crew of three for several days of groundfishing off the coast of northern New England.
The dragger had just finished a six-month layup and repair. Along with maintenance, the yard modified the rudderpost/tube assembly and steering systems. This would be the first trip out.
On the third day, they encountered some rough weather. The skipper decided to curtail the voyage around 11. At 4 p.m., the lazarette bilge alarm sounded. The skipper activated the bilge pump. Five minutes later, the same alarm sounded, but the pump could not keep up.
The boat seemed to be settling by the stern and was becoming harder to handle. The skipper turned the vessel to ride down-sea while the crew went on deck to make sure all freeing ports were clear.
The waves had built to 15 to 20 feet, and the wind was blowing at a steady 35 to 40 knots. Waves started to carry over the stern and onto the deck, causing occasional flooding into the engine room and the wheelhouse with water deep enough to knock the men off their feet.
The skipper made a mayday call, and all three donned survival suits. Then the dragger capsized. One crewman climbed over the rail and onto the overturned hull as the dragger rolled. Fearing he might slide into the turning prop, he jumped into the 38-degree water. He watched as the boat sank stern first.
That crewman found the skipper. The third man was nowhere in sight. Within an hour of entering the water, the skipper, who had only partially donned his survival suit, had become unresponsive. The crewman struggled to stay with him, but they became separated.
In response to the mayday call and an EPIRB transmission, the Coast Guard launched a search and rescue effort. By 8 p.m., a helicopter crew hoisted the lone crewman to safety.
Early the next morning the skipper was recovered. He had died of hypothermia and drowning. The crewman was treated for mild hypothermia. The third member of the crew was never found. The dragger was a total loss.
The causes of the dragger’s flooding and capsizing cannot be confirmed.
The vessel was built for the Gulf of Mexico; its design may have been incompatible with New England waters. Gear changes may have added too much weight to the hull.
A watertight plate between the lazarette and a void space was partially open and not secured to the mounting studs. The boat may have retained stability if just the lazarette was flooded.
The rudderpost/tube fitting had been reconstructed, and the manual cable and chain steering system was replaced with a power hydraulic assist system.
Licensed naval architects were not consulted to evaluate the structural aspects of hull repairs and equipment upgrades. Some of the repairs were completed by employees of the vessel.
Once the dragger turned down-sea, water shipped over the stern and entered nonwatertight deck fittings.
The most likely scenario was that the rudderpost/tube fitting failed, allowing flooding of the lazarette. The flooding progressed into the adjacent void through the non-secured watertight opening. The vessel succumbed to free surface-induced loss of stability and capsized.
Maintaining your vessel’s watertight and weathertight integrity is critical in severe weather conditions. Knowing the locations of watertight fittings and weathertight closures should be part of the crew member vessel familiarization process. The importance of keeping watertight doors and hatches closed should be emphasized on a regular basis.
Keep track of physical changes to your vessel, such as the installation of new fishing gear. Consult with a professional engineer to determine if new stability guidance is warranted.
Keep yourself and your vessel on an even keel, and 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.