Winter fishing

Winter fishing is about as tough as it gets. You stick any ordinary man on the deck of a fishing boat in the Gulf of Maine or the Bering Sea in late January and send him to Georges Bank or some other God-forsaken place, tell him he's going spend a week, day and night, stumbling over checkers on an icy deck, the boat rolling from rail to rail and him seasick, frozen and so bone-weary he'd give you everything he had to lie down in his bunk, and there's one thing you know to an absolute certainty: When you put this useless S.O.B. back on the dock, you're never going to see him again.

Extraordinary guys go fishing. You may think you're ordinary, because you work hard, shun privilege, and try to build a good life for your family, but there's very little ordinary about you. Your life lacks even the comfort of routine, other than the rolling of the boat. Vacation pay, sick leave and pension checks are out of the question, and you mark time with bad backs and swollen fingers.

Granted, you are not utterly uncompensated. Sunrise is a spectacle when it dances like a fireball on a wild sea to the eastward. Haul-backs ripple with anticipation as you strain to see what the ocean has yielded. On land, a diesel can seem a noisome beast, but at sea the muffled roar of several hundred horsepower is the beat of life. And there may be no place on Earth as warm as the galley when the deck has just been cleared, no bed as beckoning as your bunk, however narrow, when you've got the prospect of a few hours' sleep.

This is hardly consolation for the family of Antonio Barroqueiro, captain of the Lady of Grace, the 75-foot New Bedford, Mass., dragger that went down the night of Jan. 26, or for the families of his crewmen, Rogerio Ventura, Joao Silva and Mario Farinhas. Six days later, the dragger Lady Luck disappeared, leaving only a debris pattern on the waters off Cape Elizabeth, Maine, and two more families — captain Sean Cone's and Dan Miller's — wondering why.

Authorities are convinced the Lady of Grace iced up and capsized, but the boat's EPIRB never went off. It appears to have deployed when the boat rolled, only to float up into a scupper, where it hung up, never making it to the sea's surface to broadcast emergency.

The loss of the Lady Luck is a mystery. It's not clear from news accounts I've seen if there was a distress signal of any kind before the EPIRB went off, and there was no sign of the vessel's life raft, as of this writing.

The loss of these two boats and six extraordinary men reminds us that tragedy is never far below the horizon in this racket, and that it is only mere moments away.

You can cover the deck with life rafts, fill the fo'c'sle with survival suits and paper the windows with courtesy exam stickers, but there is always going to be a sea for every boat. And when it breaks over the stern, or the lazarette implodes, or the wrong weld lets go, or you drag up a torpedo, or God forbid, you roll over in January, well, what you really
need is an angel.

If disaster can strike in moments, then moments count. VMS technology, which constantly uploads vessel position to satellites, clearly lends itself to the cause of vessel safety.

It is not enough to merely observe that a vessel has ceased transmitting its position, which might mean any number of things. VMS has within its grasp the technological wherewithal to provoke an immediate response at those critical moments when a captain's priority is getting the crew off the boat.

In New Bedford, former scalloper Jim Kendall, a fisheries consultant who numbers VMS maker Boatracs among his clients, advocates installation of a panic button that would immediately signal shipboard crisis. Other nations, such as Australia, use VMS to establish a direct and immediate link between a vessel in trouble and the national Rescue Coordination Center.

The New England Fishery Management Council, which met the week following the loss of the Lady Luck, voted to ask VMS manufacturers to move swiftly to ensure that all their users know how their safety systems work.

We'll never know exactly what difference a panic button might have made in the last desperate moments aboard the Lady of Grace. We'll never know how long it was from the time fate's black cloak settled over the Lady Luck until the EPIRB finally went off.

But we know what winter fishing is all about.

— Jerry Fraser

A collection of stories from guest authors.

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