A call in time saves lives

The skipper and three-man crew of a 74-foot steel trawler left their southeastern New England home port on a winter trip. Aside from breaking through some ice in the outer harbor, the transit was uneventful. They were getting good numbers on every haulback just two days in and several days left on their trip. The skipper estimated he already had 30,000 to 35,000 pounds of fish in the hold.


In the afternoon the weather took a bit of a downturn with seas picking up to 12 to 15 feet with winds out of the northwest at 25 to 30 knots. Later that evening, the skipper received a high bilge alarm from the lazarette/steering compartment. When the trawler’s engineer went aft to open the flush-deck hatch to the lazarette, he saw the compartment was filling with water, with bubbling coming up in the vicinity of the rudderpost.

The trawler was fitted with a fixed bilge system, consisting of 3-inch steel piping, ball valves and check valves that were capable of taking suction from the engine room and fish hold bilges, but not the lazarette. However, there was a 2-inch sluice pipe that was allowed free communication between the lazarette and the fish hold bilge. The engineer lined up the fixed bilge pump to take suction out of the fish hold that would, in turn, also pump out the lazarette. The skipper also had the crew rig a 1-inch suction hose from a fixed electric pump in the engine room, which they ran through the open engine room hatch and back along the deck to help dewater the lazarette. The skipper decided to have the crew haul in the fishing gear. He put the trawler on a westerly heading, set the throttle for 8 knots, and started transiting back to port.

The crew of the trawler kept up their dewatering effort for the next three hours, but it was clear they weren’t staying ahead of the flooding. The stern got lower in the water, and the seas began washing over the deck and pouring down into the lazarette through the open hatch.

Around midnight, the skipper came to the realization that he was not going to be able to save the trawler, and he attempted to contact the Coast Guard. His initial attempt to contact the Coast Guard failed, but another vessel overheard the calls, established communication with the Coast Guard, and relayed the trawler’s situation. The skipper informed the relaying vessel that he and the crew were making preparations to abandon ship and then signed off. The skipper grabbed the EPIRB, then he and the rest of the crew donned their survival suits, launched the inflatable raft and climbed in.

A short time later, the Coast Guard received a hit from the EPIRB. They diverted a cutter toward the last known position and launched a rescue helicopter., which arrived about 40 minutes after the Coast Guard received the EPIRB signal. After a brief search, the raft was located, and all four men were hoisted to safety. Before leaving the scene, the helicopter crew reported the trawler had sunk. Other than suffering some mild hypothermia, all four men had escaped uninjured and were picked up by the trawler’s owner.

Lessons learned

The flooding into the lazarette most likely started in the vicinity of the rudderpost assembly. The area and packing around the rudder shaft might have sustained damage when the trawler transited an ice field at the beginning of this trip. 

Almost all vessels have some kind of minor seeping or leaking. The key difference when making an assessment between having a manageable leak and flooding is the ability of your dewatering system to remove the water. Once you realize a flooding situation exists, the next step is figuring out where the water is coming from and how you’re going to stop or slow it down. If the water is coming from a location that cannot be seen or can’t be reached to make repairs, you must try to isolate the flooding to one compartment. Even minor flooding, such as at the rudderpost in a lazarette, can lead to downflooding.

Once you have identified that there is serious problem, the next decision to make is whether to make a call for help or notify another vessel or somebody ashore of a potentially deteriorating situation. In this case, earlier notification to the Coast Guard may have enabled the timely delivery of portable dewatering pumps or may have allowed a surface asset to arrive on scene and assist in damage control and dewatering efforts. 

Maintaining the integrity of a fishing vessel’s watertight envelope can significantly reduce the chance of losing your fishing vessel as a result of flooding, no matter what the cause. Make it a practice to secure all watertight openings (doors, hatch covers, windows, etc.) in the hull and deck structures when not in use to prevent flooding.

If you need help, make the call early 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.


NF Dec16 CVR

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