Between January 2000 and January 2001, four commercial fishing vessels from Maine sank and nine fishermen lost their lives at sea – unusually high numbers.

After each incident involving vessels sinking and/or loss of life at sea, the U.S. Coast Guard analyzes the probable causes and contributing factors, and publishes a report of the investigation and its recommendations. In March 2001, Working Waterfront asked the Coast Guard, under the Freedom of Information Act, for the a summary of its report on each vessel.

Four such summaries arrived three years later, in March, 2004, covering the investigations of the four fishing vessels sunk with loss of life: f/v TWO FRIENDS, f/v INFINITY, f/v KATINA ASHLEY and f/v BIG DREAMER. Because the Coast Guard had not concluded its investigation into the sinking of f/v LITTLE RASPY, it did not release that report.

The Coast Guard offered no explanation for the long delay. Recent reports concerning the Coast Guard’s budget, however, have suggested that parts of the agency have been negatively affected as the Coast Guard adapts to new responsibilities under the Homeland Security Act (WWF April 04). The Coast Guard’s Vessel Documentation Office, for example, which keeps track of changes in ownership of federally documented vessels, is currently working under a six-month backlog.

Coast Guard reports do not include names of and other information on surviving fishermen, their medical records and drug or alcohol tests. This and all information about witnesses such as Coast Guard personnel and private citizens is blacked out or “redacted.”

Arn Heggers, Fishing Vessel Safety Coordinator for Maine and New Hampshire, explained that an accident at sea is made up of a series of events, like stacked dominos.

“If you remove one,” he said, “the event may not have happened. It’s all the little causal events. He added something every commercial fisherman knows too well: “The fatigue factor is a major problem,” and emphasized, “very, very rarely are accidents the result of one thing.”

Another factor is the impact of fishing regulations on vessel owners and fishermen. Because of the reduction in Days At Sea [DAS], the vessel owner in one of the cases used two boats to make up losses from those fishing days. He had to maintain two boats on what one boat could produce – a situation that could have led to lower of standards for vessel maintenance.

A fishing vessel insurer wondered whether the reduction of Days at Sea might be a primary or a more significant cause of loss of life. “Boats are supposed to get safer, and there’s more safety equipment,” he said, “but we still have these losses – are the factors that are causing the losses changing? And if so, what are they?”

Commercial fishing is too dangerous to leave anything to chance. After a vessel sinks and there’s loss of life, the Coast Guard, vessel owners, fishermen and their families find themselves saying, ‘if only this’ and ‘if only that.’ The trick is in eliminating those deadly “ifs.”

f/v TWO FRIENDS: two deaths

The fishing vessel TWO FRIENDS, a 60-foot stern trawler, left Portland with a crew of three for a three- to four-day groundfishing trip in the Gulf of Maine on Jan. 23, 2000. Two mornings later, because of rough weather and building seas, the captain decided to head for home, steaming into the waves. Late that afternoon, the lazarette bilge alarm sounded. He started the lazarette pump, and the condition cleared. Five minutes later the alarm went off again, but this time the pumps didn’t clear. Because the vessel acted as if the stern was flooding, he turned the vessel down-sea, according to the Coast Guard Report. Waves started to carry over the stern and onto the deck, putting the vessel and crew in danger.

The captain and crew put on survival suits, but before they could deploy the life raft, the vessel capsized, about 20 minutes after the first alarm. Although one of the crew had his survival suit on, he was caught under the vessel as it rolled, and drowned. The captain, who had his suit only partially on because it no longer fit him, died of hypothermia some time after entering the water. The third man, the only crewmember whose suit was on correctly except for the hood, was rescued three and a half hours later by the Coast Guard, an EPIRB in one arm and the body of another crewmember in the other. He was treated for mild hypothermia and released that evening.

With the vessel missing, it was hard for the Coast Guard to recommend any safety procedures other than that fishermen be aware of the condition of the hull’s structure and potential sources of flooding. It advised checking rudder post fittings, hull plating, deck fittings and hatches for watertight integrity. It also recommended that repairs and modifications be done properly, consulting with a qualified marine engineer when appropriate. The report included the following statement: “The findings of this investigation are relevant to many commercial fishing vessels operations where cost is often a determining factor when considering vessel repairs or modifications.” The emphasis, the report stated, should be on maintaining the seaworthiness of the vessel for the conditions it will be operating under.

The Coast Guard concluded, “Drugs were not the cause of this casualty and no drug testing results were provided.”

f/v THE KATINA ASHLEY: one death

In the third case, the f/v THE KATINA ASHLEY, a 44-foot fiberglass stern trawler, sank while fishing off the entrance channels to Portland Harbor on Oct. 24, 2000, resulting in its lone operator’s death.

The Coast Guard received a distress signal from an EPIRB registered to the vessel. Subsequent searches resulted in the recovery of a small amount of debris from the vessel and the body of the operator. There was talk of the vessel having been run down by another vessel, but with THE KATINA ASHLEY missing and with such contributing factors as the life raft not deploying after the vessel sank and a survival suit found floating out of its bag several days later, the Coast Guard was forced to conclude that the vessel sank for unknown reasons.

f/v INFINITY: two deaths

The Coast Guard’s assessment of the second case, the f/v INFINITY, a 52.3-foot stern trawler that sank in five minutes on June 6, 2000, resulting in two deaths, is a study in contributing factors. The words “underestimated,” “imprudent,” “not attempted,” “ignored,” “disregarded,” “malfunctioned,” “missing,” “outdated,” “improper” and “negligent” crop up repeatedly.

According to the Coast Guard’s report, on or around June 4, 2000, the f/v INFINITY with a crew of three left for a three-day trip to Platts Bank and Jeffreys Ledge. The lazarette, the last compartment on the vessel and that containing the rudder post, had been flooding since INFINITY’s departure. The crew used a 110-volt sump pump to pump out the water every few hours, as the bilge piping to the lazarette was inoperable. There were also three holes rusted through the main deck, and one of the lazarette hatches was not watertight.

Tuesday morning, the crew found the lazarette half full of water and pumped it out. Afterward one of the crewmembers tightened the rudder-packing gland by tightening a nut on the top that packs the fibrous packing material tightly around the rudder post. At the time, there were 500 gallons of diesel fuel, 4,000-5,000 lbs. of flounder and 5 to 6 tons of ice on board.

That afternoon, one of the crew noticed the back deck awash and the vessel taking waves over the stern. The bilge high water alarms did not sound. He woke the captain, who took the vessel out of gear and called the Coast Guard. The crewman and the captain got into their survival suits, more or less, and the captain went to deploy the life raft, but was unable to do so. By then, the boat had started to sink by the stern and was almost vertical. The two crewmembers jumped into the water, the captain was thrown from the vessel. One of the crew saw the EPIRB, swam to it and held it.

The captain and one crew-member drowned. The lone survivor later said no safety training or drills had been conducted and that the crew did not examine or try on their survival suits prior to using them when abandoning the vessel.

The many contributing factors included “the captain’s risk-taking attitude,” parts of the vessel that were inoperable, rusted out, etc.; safety equipment that was overdue for servicing, incomplete, out-of-date, and too small. One survival suit was 20 years old. Added to this, the Coast Guard noted that possible alcohol or drug involvement could not be ruled out and that the owner failed to provide a properly maintained vessel.

While the Coast Guard noted that “Implementation of required safety inspections by the Coast Guard would improve the safety of uninspected commercial fishing vessels,” it has never been able to get the additional funding from Congress to pay for the increased number of inspectors to do so. Therefore, “as an alternative to improve the competency of fishing vessel operators and crew,” the Portland Coast Guard decided to strengthen existing regulations that require emergency drill training and monthly drills.

f/v BIG DREAMER: one death

The final case refers to the death of a crewmember aboard the f/v BIG DREAMER, a stern trawler, on January 19, 2001.

The crewmember was caught in a reel of a hydraulic winch while fishing in the Wilkinson Basin. The deceased tested positive for methadone. No other crewmembers were hurt.

The Coast Guard made referrals for enforcement as a result of their investigation in which “gathered evidence indicate[d] one or more alleged violations or offenses may have occurred.”