All right, it’s good you are being proactive. You’ve heard more than one story about fishermen who have drowned because they weren’t wearing a PFD or immersion suit when their boat went down. So you took a safety course or two and now you’ve got PFDs, immersion suits and life jackets for both you and the crew. And you developed a safety procedures manual for you boat. That’s being prepared. Or is it?
Not for the skipper and crew of the 28-foot Five Star, an aluminum crabber that operated out of Kelsey Bay, British Columbia. On June 12, 2014, the Five Star was returning to Kelsey Bay with nearly 2,800 pounds of crab in containers on the deck. It was the Five Star’s largest catch of the year.
Entering Johnstone Strait, the crabber encountered a strong ebb tide going up against a 28-knot wind out of the northwest. It is also an area known for strong eddies and swirls. Not long after entering Johnstone Strait, the Five Star broached, sending the crab-filled containers slamming up against the port bulwark. Shortly after, the boat rolled down and over. The crewman was wearing an older life jacket, while the skipper, who exited through the wheelhouse window, wore neither a life jacket nor a PFD.
Both hung onto the overturned hull for a while and then started swimming to shore. The crewman made it the 500 yards to land. The skipper did not. Once ashore, the crewman located a house and made a 911 call.
Several things stand out in the marine investigation report from the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.
Despite the fact that the skipper had purchased the PFDs and immersion suits after participating in Canada’s Safest Catch program, neither lifejackets nor PFDs were worn during normal fishing operations — let alone the rough conditions encountered that day. Thus, the skipper became a statistic: one of the 44 percent of British Columbia fishing related fatalities not wearing a PFD since 2004.
Though the skipper had developed a safety procedures manual, he had not led emergency drills — required by regulations and encouraged by the Safest Catch program. That might have got him thinking about stability and what would happen if the crab containers broke loose in heavy weather.
The Five Star was also required to have a VHF radio with DSC capability. The boat had the radio but not the DSC feature, which would have allowed them to send a distress signal at the push of a button.
Though it wasn’t required, the report notes that an EPIRB, which was not on the Five Star, would have automatically sent out a search and rescue distress signal when it hit the water. Thus no one knew about the incident until the crew member called 911. That was an hour and a half after the boat capsized.
The Five Star and her skipper is another dismal tale in a long line of sad stories of fishermen dying at sea when it might have been avoided. In this case, just because you take safety courses and buy the proper equipment, it really doesn’t do you much good unless you think about how to use those tools and do the training.