When a small fishing boat floods and sinks, the survivors often describe the event as occurring in seconds or minutes, rather than hours.

Flooding, even from what begins as a small crack or hole, can occur so quickly that some survivors recall donning survival suits in the drink — and feeling lucky to have had to presence of mind to grab one before the boat went down.

Few fishermen or recreational boaters carry onboard what the Coast Guard calls a “damage control kit” containing a dozen vital and inexpensive items that can be used to keep a leaking vessel afloat until help arrives or even enable it to reach shore.

These potentially life-saving items (see box) include wooden wedges and plugs, scrap hose, a hatchet and rags. Altogether, they occupy a space no larger than a shopping bag and cost about $85.

“If you do have a problem and you have [the repair items] handy, you’re in a lot better shape,” stressed Portland-based Coast Guard Lt. Ed Green, who investigates marine accidents. “It’s not required, but it’s like any other piece of survival gear: more is better.”

Shortly after receiving a repair kit last year, one lobsterman not only slowed down the water that rushed into his boat from rudderpost damage he sustained, but he was “able to reduce the flooding enough to get back to Bailey’s Island with the boat half-full of water,” recalls Kevin Plowman, the Coast Guard’s commercial fishing vessel safety examiner. The inshore lobsterman “plugged up the leak with plugs, oakum and wedges from the kit,” Plowman adds.

Last year, the non-profit Seafarer’s Friend assembled and donated 250 damage control kits to New England fishermen who completed the Coast Guard’s Damage Control and Survival Training course or had their boats inspected.

Both programs are voluntary.

Seafarer’s Friend, which conducts the annual Blessing of the Fleet, is an international maritime ministry formed in 1827 to aid sailors. The organization recently expanded its services to include commercial fishermen because of the industry’s high accident and fatality rates, said Boston-based executive director Ted Coates.

“When the Coast Guard responds to a boater in trouble, they take a damage control kit,” he explained, adding that fishermen have become more receptive to taking proactive safety measures following a surge of fatal accidents in Maine three years ago. By giving kits to fishermen, the organization hopes to improve their chances of staying afloat until help arrives or returning to shore for repairs, like the Bailey’s Island lobsterman who received a kit from Seafarer’s Friend.

Still, Coates said, every harbor seems to have at least one old salt who’s married to the repair virtues of Bondo and/or duct tape.

Short on funds, Coates said, Seafarer’s Friend is seeking partners and volunteers to help supply and distribute the kits this year.

Fishing vessel inspections remain the best way to ensure that a boat and its safety equipment are at their seaworthy best, emphasized Plowman, the fishing safety inspector. “The survival rate for fishermen is much greater if a boat is in compliance” with mandatory and voluntary safety regulations, and the inspection sticker can mean less time devoted to checking safety gear when the Coast Guard boards a vessel.

Plowman urges all fishermen to have their boats inspected, noting that the results are not shared with law enforcement entities. “If [the owner] doesn’t want to do what he needs to do, that’s between him and his God,” adds Plowman.

The free inspections, conducted at virtually any location, take about two hours, he said.

Recreational vessels

The Coast Guard Marine Safety Office in Portland created the damage control kit list for small commercial fishing vessels, but Col. Joe Fessenden, who heads Maine’s Marine Patrol, said the kits would be useful for recreational boats in general, and those with through-hull fittings in particular.

“In an emergency, the best part of having a kit is that you can address the problem, especially flooding, yourself.”

But the Marine Patrol, whose law enforcement jurisdiction extends along and within three miles of the coast and to the head of tide in all Maine rivers, does not print or distribute a similar list to recreational boaters or inshore fishermen, said Fessenden, a coastal warden for 30 years.

Budget cuts, combined with Maine’s allocation of state and federal funds, leave little money available for safety and education programs, he said, despite the growth of recreational boating. That growth requires more resources to support law enforcement needs and, as a result, safety and education programs have suffered, he adds.

From 1993 to 2003, commercial and recreational boat registrations throughout the state rose from 113,590 to 128,228, according to Maine’s Department of Inland Fish and Wildlife (DIFW), which collects and maintains accident and boat registration data for marine and inland waters.

On the coast, Maine’s volunteer Coast Guard Auxiliary and the Power Squadron conduct safety courses and inspect recreational vessels.

Rockland Coast Guard Auxiliary member Sid Lindsley said most vessels are not equipped with damage control kits. “We do pass out pamphlets that [recommend] safety equipment to have on board,” he said, adding, “This list would be a good idea.”

For fishing vessel inspections, call 780-3256.

For recreational vessel inspections, contact your local Coast Guard office.

Suggested Damage Control Kit for Small Vessels

Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard, Marine Safety Office, Portland, Maine