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Safety Training Saved Crew And NOAA Fisheries Observer
by Meghan Miner, NOAA Fisheries Observer — Edited by Ann Backus, MS

Ann Backus, an instructor in occupational health, has for years published articles that range from cold weather survival at sea, to boat icing, to toxic dust from dried trap lines to man overboard emergencies. Her articles appear regularly in the Fishermen’s Voice. Lynn Pussic photo
This column was named “Voice of Safety” because we wanted to be able to present different voices on the topic of fishing safety. In the past topics have ranged from safety equipment to a a lobsterman's struggle for suvival after being dragged overboard. This month a NOAA fisheries observer gives her account of being on board a sinking boat.

On September 28, 2007, the F/V Jacob Allen sank off Nantucket. The Captain, four fishermen, and a NOAA fishing observer who had had safety training, had carried out an abandon-ship drill on September 27, 2007. The Captain was the drill instructor. At the time of the sinking they were able to don survival suits, jump into a deployed life raft, and activate an EPIRB and the fishery observer’s Personal Locator Beacon (PBL)- a GPS-based beacon. These actions contributed to the quick retrieval of the six because the U.S. Coast Guard received the EPIRB signal from the vessel, the latitude and longitude from the PLB of the observer, then radioed vessels in the vicinity. The F/V Sancor responded to the notification of crew in distress and was able to rescue the six people.

Meghan Miner, the NOAA fisheries observer on board the F/V Jacob Allen when it sank, tells the story of her survival of this sinking and comments on lessons learned.

I work for AIS, Inc., a company that subcontracts fisheries observers for NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). As part of my job, I go out to sea with commercial fishing vessels to collect economic, gear and catch information in order to support viable commercial fisheries.

I first found the job online after graduating from the University of Michigan and subsequently backpacking around the world. I wanted a job that would allow me to take my experience and degree working with freshwater environments to a saltwater setting and a job that would give me the adventure that I still craved. The job of fisheries observer is a perfect match. I am given the opportunity for travel, constantly meet new people and I am given new challenges and adventures.

One such adventure occurred on a fishing trip that left the docks on Friday the 21st of September. I had set off on the F/V Jacob Allen for an industry-funded scallop trip in an open area. Sometime the following Wednesday morning, when I woke for my shift, I heard reports on the radio that the Coast Guard was dealing with an incident involving men overboard on a boat near where we were fishing—none had grabbed their survival suits. The captain, disturbed by these reports, ordered us the next day to do a safety drill. We went out on deck in fairly rough seas (5 ft. waves), and put our survival suits on. Everyone on board did this drill. The following night, Friday the 28th of September, around 4:45pm, after our 7th day of fishing and 8th day at sea, I was awakened by the Captain, Tony, saying that there was “a situation” on deck, and he needed me out there “now”.

At first, I thought that this was a joke, and I sorely underestimated the severity of the situation. Groggily, I headed toward the bathroom to get ready for my shift. I could hear the guys screaming my name so I came right out and into the chaos in the galley. I saw crewmembers bringing electronics down from the wheelhouse and into the galley where they were wrapping them in black garbage bags. I grabbed a few things from my bunk and went out on deck, as instructed. On the way to the deck area, I passed the door to the wheelhouse and the area where the survival suits are kept in a door-less closet. I looked down into the engine room and saw water sloshing around on the engine room floor and coming up the steps. This is when I knew something was really wrong.

Some of the crew were already struggling to put their survival suits on. I reminded them to grab layers and put them on under their survival suit in case this were to be a long ordeal. The captain was up in the wheelhouse sending mayday calls. He also deployed the life raft and the EPRIB and brought it with us when we abandoned ship into the life raft. I also set off my own PLB. Everyone jumped from the boat into the life raft without touching the water. The mood was very calm and collected. The captain was the last one into the raft.

We remained floating in the raft, with the painter attached to the sinking vessel for what I think was probably about a half hour. I had brought a plastic bag with a VHF radio given to me by the captain for safekeeping. The radio worked occasionally, and we could hear voices cutting in and out. By this time, the electricity on the boat had gone out, but since we were still attached to the boat by the painter, we could hear the Jacob Alan’s radio (which must have been operating on a backup battery) from the life raft. We searched around in the bags within the life raft and found some flares.

The captain shot off two flares, before we saw a plane overhead. We could hear the pilot of the plane over the Jacob Allen’s radio saying that he had made a low pass, but did not see anything. Worried about the vessel’s stability, the captain cut the life raft’s line free from the Jacob Allen. We sent up another flare when we could hear a plane again. This time we heard radio confirmation of the sighting of our flare. What was approximately an hour to an hour and a half after we abandoned ship, the F/V SANCOR came into view through the fog blaring its horn. We were hoisted onto the portside of the boat by crewmembers of the SANCOR who also helped us to get the life raft aboard.

We waited on the SANCOR for several minutes, watching the Jacob Allen to see if it would sink. Although it was riding low in the water, very wobbly, and without electricity, we never saw the boat sink. The Coast Guard issued navigational warnings concerning the Jacob Allen at least until we reached the dock sometime between 05:00 and 05:30 on Saturday morning the 29th. A member of the US Coast Guard boarded the Sancor and interviewed the crew, collected identification, and then released us all.

Fortunately, thanks to the rapid reception of our EPIRB and PLB signals, we were found and rescued relatively quickly. I can’t say enough how important it is to turn on your PLB once a serious situation has been assessed. I am a little bit upset that I did not set mine off sooner. I kept thinking, oh, everything will be ok, we’ll just see what happens next—until we were actually standing there, in our survival suits, ready to abandon ship. If I had not set off my PLB, and the signal had not been immediately picked up by the Coast Guard and the Air Force, I might not be here today!

Thanks to the survival training that I had, I knew just what to do in this emergency. Although the events were happening quickly, and I was very nervous at first, I took a deep breath and just started following the steps that I had learned in my training class- it was like an out of body experience, like it wasn’t happening to me. It’s amazing the things that you remember when pressed. I remembered to wear layers, where the knife and flares were located once inside the raft, to remind everyone to drink water to treat shock and prevent overheating in our cramped steamy life raft, how to shoot a flare, and even to keep making jokes. Mostly, in this situation, the jokes revolved around me forgetting to bring my cell phone, and how mermaids will be my personal operators at least for a while. At least my calls would be screened. The captain also kept things light hearted and acted very quickly. If it were not for his cool-headedness, his drills, and his survival training, things might have gone much differently.

This boat met and exceeded all of the safety requirements (they had an 8 man raft for a 6 man crew), had recently had their life raft re-packed. The captain had also gone through a similar safety course, and was able to conduct drills on his boat very efficiently. Had I gone on any other seemingly fine boat, and had neglected to check the life raft, safety sticker, EPIRB, or anything else as I had been taught to do, and something had been wrong or out-of-date- things could have gone much less smoothly!

We were fortunate enough to have conducted a survival drill on the boat the day before our boat actually went down, and this helped tremendously. More captains should conduct drills- particularly every time they add or change crew members—you never know when this trip could be the one where you need to act on those drills!

This whole situation, if nothing else, made me very aware of how important it is to do the safety checklist before getting on the boat, and to check for other things as well. It is your safety out there, and you are responsible for looking out for it!

Ann Backus, MS is an Instructor in Occupational Health at Harvard School of Public Health, 665 Huntington Ave., Boston MA 02115, 617/432-3327, abackus@hohp.harvard.edu