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SAFETY AT SEA



Backman Leadin

    It’s a breezeless warm summer day and you're canyon bound, not a care in the world. You are on a big, fast, well-maintained boat speeding over the blue mirror of the ocean, eagerly looking forward to reaching the grounds and putting out the spread. The tuna and marlin are calling, and you have young kids on board to share in this adventure and experience the mind-altering allure of the canyons.
    What could go wrong? A lot! Over 20 years of canyon running I’ve heard dozens of “it went wrong – FAST” stories where suddenly the best day of the year turned bad in seconds. Fortunately almost all of the stories ended happily. Almost all of them have learning experiences attached to them. Catastrophic engine failure, water ingress, fire, medical emergency, unforeseen weather conditions can happen in an instant and call for immediate and proper action.
    Heading any distance offshore in a boat takes you into an ocean wilderness far away from the safety lines you take for granted in everyday life. Distances are magnified on the water; time to the dock can’t be measured simply by how fast your boat might run, it should be measured by how slowly it may have to limp or be towed back if something goes wrong.
    Let's take a look at some potential problems that could occur at sea and what you can do to be prepared to handle whatever might arise while you’re out there. While you can never prepare for all emergencies, you always can prepare to be able to handle the most common situations and ensure you have adequate safety equipment aboard.
    Your mind and your crew’s minds are your biggest asset in any emergency situation. Let’s start there!

    COMMUNICATION IS CRITICAL
    My offshore safety preparation starts each winter with a lot of reading and research to understand first what could go wrong and then how to address a problem as efficiently as possible. I also play back in my mind experiences of my own in the past year with an eye to what could have been done better.
    Each year my safety gear and the protocols around their use improve as I refine my equipment and techniques. I also work on both understanding and preparing for potential problems and on how to communicate best with my crew in the event an issue arises.
    In 2016 I faced three separate emergency situations at sea — one weather-related, one a catastrophic part failure, and the third a persistent electronic alarm on an engine. In all cases we returned to the dock safely, some calm thinking followed by clear communication was key to controlling problems and preventing things from going from bad to worse!
    In the past two years I’ve been at sea and heard calls for medical assistance, maydays for boats taking on water. I’ve stood by boats with smoke coming out of compartments and boats with engines that would not start. Stuff happens on the water and Murphy was an optimist – be prepared!

    PRACTICE DRILLS
    If an emergency occurs, one of the most important immediate actions is to communicate to others who you are, where you are, the problem, your location and the number of people on board. We all have heard the Coast Guard on Channel 16 asking panicked radio callers for these four crucial pieces of information. Drill the radio protocol into your head and into the heads of anyone else on board.
    I often fish 30 to 50 miles offshore with my wife. I have made her practice emergency radio calls with me at the dock: “Mayday, Mayday – this is vessel Skipjack – location 41 02 north, 70 28 W, my husband has fallen in the water; I am alone on board.”
    It may be tough on marital relations to correct my wife on radio protocol, explain how to get the correct location off a GPS and how to give a calm and organized call, but it’s no joke if something happens to me! I have a laminated emergency radio procedure card in my ditch bag. At least once a year I’ll toss a life ring off the back of the boat step away from the wheel and tell my wife “I just went overboard, go get me.”
    Each year in the early spring I gather a couple of friends and head out a few miles off the coast, call the Coast Guard and request permission to perform crew drills with flares. We fire off a couple rocket flares and pop a smoke canister so everyone is familiar with how they work.
    I practice donning an old survival suit and jumping into 50-degree harbor water in early May. Usually I have to coerce others to do the same. It seems silly to do at the dock, but familiarizing yourself with the cumbersome effort needed to get into a suit inside of 1 minute is time well spent.
    I cannot emphasize enough the importance of a safety briefing before leaving the dock so everyone on board is familiar with what safety gear is on board, how and when to use it.
    Finally, I take the safety training course put on by the New Bedford Fishing Partnership. It is a full day of training taught by both professional safety officers and experienced commercial fishermen. It takes you through five or six stations: damage control, firefighting, first aid, survival suits and life raft practice, as well as flare and radio practice. I learn something new each year!

    WHAT CAN GO WRONG WILL
    I categorize offshore emergencies in five areas:
    Mechanical problem
    Structural issue compromising its seaworthiness
    Fire
    Medical issue
    Weather
    Let’s go through each of these areas in a bit of detail and consider some basic safety issues in the case any of these arise.

    MECHANICAL PROBLEMS
    If you own a boat, you’re well aware that keeping a boat's systems fully operational is neither cheap nor simple. Each winter I spend my maintenance dollars to proactively service the engine, steering, hydraulics and other systems before problems occur. Whether you own an inboard or outboard engine, whether it’s single engine, dual engine or even triples, it’s imperative to have a service plan for the boat's engines and systems that addresses potential problems before they occur.
    My boat is a single inboard diesel. I service my raw water loop every three years, have turbo and exhaust elbow inspected at the same time, replace or rebuild water pump, starter and alternator every four years and comb through each system's hoses, clamps and gaskets annually looking for potential failures.
    Steering hydraulics and fittings are checked and replaced as needed. All bilge pumps, float switches and alarms are tested and, if suspect, replaced in the winter. The best way to deal with mechanical failures is to not have them!
    Twelve years ago a belt tensioner pulley exploded 88 miles from the dock with weather coming on. I had to shut the engine down before it overheated. I opened the hatch, saw the blown belt, went in my spare kit for a replacement and then saw the tensioner pulley in pieces. Fortunately at that time I had a dual engine boat and limped home on one engine. Had it happened in my single engine boat I would have needed a tow. Now belt tensioner pulleys get inspected regularly!
    Last fall on a glass calm October morning, my friend's well-maintained Yanmar suffered a catastrophic failure. The engine started clattering and hot oil was everywhere in the engine room. We called Seatow for the long ride of shame home. After the fact we found a cracked braze in an oil return line. As I said, Murphy was an optimist!
    That experience led to this winter’s safety prep work, creating a towing bridle out of a new 25-foot dock line so that if I have to tow or be towed in my single engine Downeast, it can be done safely!

    TAKING ON WATER
    Let’s start with the elephant in the room: running at speed in poor visibility is dangerous. At least twice a year I hear a horror story of things that go thunk in the night. If you run in the dark you should have your raft and safety gear readily accessible and all on board briefed as to both damage control and abandon-ship plans. My old marina had the dubious distinction of being the closest 100-ton lift to the rocks in Woods Hole Passage. At least three to four times per year a flooded boat is towed into the lift, Coast Guard crash pumps throwing hundreds of gallons of water overboard.
    A more likely scenario is a blown hose or failed hose clamp. I probably hear two calls per year of a boat taking on water from a failed livewell or deck washdown hose or fitting. A 1-inch hole in your boat, 3 feet deep in the water will produce 33 gallons per minute of in-rushing water. A standard 2,000-gallons-per-hour bilge pump can barely keep up with that at full rated capacity; typically, an installed bilge pump is 50 to 66-percent efficient. In simple terms, if a typical through-hull fitting fails, a typical bilge pump cannot keep up with the in-rushing water.
    You must have a damage control plan and the appropriate tools and supplies needed to control a major water incursion. If water is rushing in, the boat is getting heavier and more sluggish by the minute. You have only minutes to act. This is my thought process on what to do: Take active command, get multiple people working in parallel. Everyone on board should be involved, this is a life-threatening emergency!
    Put one capable person on the radio to issue a distress call and maintain a radio watch: boat name, location, nature of distress, number of people on board. Keep repeating that call every minute until it is answered.
    Have another person prepare the ditch bag, grab raft and get survival suits ready.
    A third person needs to find the leak, opening hatches and compartments as needed to find the source of the water fast! Once found, they need to assess how to quickly control and lessen the flow. Foam cushions, a wooden plug or shingle, a spare life jacket all can get jammed in a hole to lessen the flow, giving you more time to make a proper fix. Emergency hose tape, a piece of rain gear cut to size can be wrapped around a burst hose, again to first control the flow. Find the problem, control the damage, assess a proper fix, and then do what is needed to completely stop the water ingress.
    While all this is going on, other crew or passengers should be bailing water with whatever is available. A 5-gallon bucket can easily move as much water as a 2,000-gph bilge pump!

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