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From tragedy comes lessons for all

The sinking of a commercial fishing vessel highlights the importance of filing a float plan and more

The sinking of a commercial fishing vessel highlights the importance of filing a float plan and more

The sea water was 52 degrees and so was the air above it at about 3:25 on the sunny Monday afternoon of Sept. 12, 2005, as the crew of the Melina and Keith II, a 65-foot steel commercial fishing boat, hauled a net full of turbot on deck 136 miles off their home port of St. John’s, Newfoundland.

One of the crewmen, 41-year-old Anthony Molloy, was in a T-shirt, and all eight of the crewmembers, including Capt. Shawn Ralph, were on deck working with the gill net. The vessel was stopped dead in the water in 6-foot seas with a moderate breeze of 10 to 15 knots when, without warning, she began to list. Four hours later Molloy and three other crewman had died; a year later Ralph was charged with eight violations of Canadian maritime law that could cost him $30,000 and send him to jail for up to six months.

The finger-pointing is widespread. Transport Canada, which regulates commercial fishing, has filed its charges against Ralph. Ralph’s lawyer questions whether there was something wrong with the design of the boat, since several similar vessels have capsized. The builder of Melina and Keith II suggests that boat owners who modify their vessels are the culprits. And Ralph and the relatives of the lost men say they believe no lives would have been lost if the Canadian search-and-rescue authorities had done their jobs.

Two things appear clear, however. Indeed, the Canadian SAR agencies, while they followed procedures, could have done more. And Shawn Ralph made what one Canadian official called “an inadvertent error” — not in navigation or seamanship on the water but on dry land, when registering his EPIRB — that might have contributed to the disaster.

There may well be lessons in the story of Melina and Keith II for other mariners, recreational as well as commercial. They range from the surprising speed with which vessels sink, limiting your time to put on PFDs and gather survival equipment, to the dangers of cold water. The incident also highlights the importance of filing float plans and listing the proper contact phone numbers when registering your EPIRB.

The Melina and Keith II was built in 1988 at Glovertown (Newfoundland) Shipyard. It was the “heyday of the cod fishery,” according to shipyard owner Harvey Humby, and that was the species the boat was designed to harvest, in coastal waters. On the day of the accident the Melina and Keith II was fishing offshore for shrimp and turbot, a type of halibut caught in deep waters.

“They were on their way back from fishing, pretty full of shrimp,” says Brian Stone, superintendent of maritime search and rescue in the Canadian Coast Guard. It took less than a minute for the fishing boat to capsize, Stone says.

In an interview with the Coast Guard, Ralph “said he was down working on the deck, with nobody in the wheelhouse,” Stone says. “They were all working on deck, hauling the gill net. When the vessel started to list, he [Ralph] ran up to the wheelhouse and put on his immersion suit.”

Ralph was the only member of the crew to get a survival suit, although the boat was properly equipped with all of its safety gear. “He went into the wheelhouse, grabbed his immersion suit, started putting it on, but he didn’t make any moves to push the buttons on the [satellite telex] terminal or call mayday,” Stone says.

Once she had capsized, the Melina and Keith II continued to float upside down. Most of the crewmen scrambled up onto the hull, although survivors told the Coast Guard of seeing one man float away clutching a piece of styrofoam. The boat had a life raft, but it never appeared on the surface, Stone says. An aluminum workboat that had been tied on the foredeck surfaced, but it was damaged, he says. The boat’s 406 EPIRB automatically triggered. In the warmth of the late-summer sun, the crew waited on the hull for their rescue. The Canadian Air Force rescue helicopter stationed at Gander Air Force Base, 129 miles from the Melina and Keith II, could be there quickly if everything went right.

The future and the past would assure that things went wrong, however.

In two hours the fishing boat sank from under the crew. Several of the men didn’t know how to swim, and with no immersion suits or life jackets they began, one by one, dying of exposure or drowning. Another factor working against a quick rescue was the EPIRB registration completed by Ralph. When an EPIRB is registered, the instructions require that the owner provide both primary and alternate “emergency contact information.” The registration form stipulates: “Please indicate someone other than the owner.”

Thomas H. Dameron, owner of Shipboard Emergency Action Co. in Bridgeport, N.J., which provides emergency training for the commercial fishing industry, gives this rule of thumb for what telephone numbers should be listed. “One that’s going to be manned, obviously, and one that the person’s going to know when the boat left, how many people are on it, when it’s expected back, and the area of operation,” he says.

“All of those things go back to filing a float plan,” says Dameron, a veteran captain of commercial fishing boats. “It would be simple to leave a standard form of who exactly was going to be on the boat, the area it was going to fish.” But many captains, he says, don’t like saying exactly where they are fishing.

Dameron notes that recreational boaters also should leave float plans, even as simple as a piece of paper left on the car dashboard at a boat ramp, giving the vessel description, planned cruising area, and expected time of return.

“[Ralph] had registered the EPIRB with his home phone and cell phone number,” Stone says. Ralph’s lawyer says the captain had his cell phone with him aboard Melina and Keith II, and no one was at home to answer the phone when the EPIRB signal reached the Coast Guard because his girlfriend works during the day.

The Coast Guard log of the incident records the excruciating results of this mistake.

• “15:35 [three minutes after Coast Guard Station St. John’s received an “unlocated” EPIRB signal] CCG St. John’s telephoned cell #, as listed on EPIRB FAX. Operator recording stated it is a local number and area code not required.”

• “15:35 CCG St. John’s telephoned cell #. No answer, no voice mail.”

• “15:36 CCG St. John’s telephoned home #. No answer and FAX eventually cut in.”

• “15:37 CCG St. John’s telephoned cell #. No answer.”

Frustration obviously was mounting. At 3:42 p.m., the Coast Guard misdialed the home number. In the same minute, the Coast Guard dialed the cell number and got an operator message that the customer was unavailable.

It would take nearly two hours of relentless calling before a Ralph family member called the Coast Guard after seeing the agency’s number displayed on their home telephone. By that time, the Coast Guard had received two EPIRB signals and information from the Vessel Monitoring System, by which Canadian fisheries officials track fishing boats. And they had coordinates for the last location of the Melina and Keith II. This information was received at 4:39 p.m., more than an hour after the boat had capsized but while the crewmen were still safely atop the floating hull. It could have been a simple matter at this time of directing a helicopter to the coordinates provided by the satellites. But SAR procedures got in the way.

At 4 o’clock that afternoon, 28 minutes after the first EPIRB signal was received, the helicopter crew at Gander — the only crew on search-and-rescue duty — was sent home for the day. Unlike the U.S. Coast Guard, which sends both boats and planes on SAR missions, the Canadian Coast Guard doesn’t fly helicopters or planes. It is responsible for coordinating SAR operations and for launching boats. The Canadian Air Force flies the helicopters at the direction of the Coast Guard, according to Maj. Grant MacDonald, search and rescue adviser at Canada Command, which coordinates domestic operations of all of the nation’s military branches.

“We’re limited by resources in terms of how many crews we have,” MacDonald says. Because 60 percent of SAR calls come in between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., that is the only part of the day when a crew is waiting with a helicopter, prepared to launch within 30 minutes. For the other 16 hours each day, MacDonald says, there are standby crews waiting at home. Their mandate is to be airborne within two hours of getting a call, he says.

In a situation like the Melina and Keith II, where it was known for 28 minutes that an EPIRB had been triggered, “Yes, they [the helicopter crew] could be told to stand by,” MacDonald says. But, he adds, “They don’t tend to keep the crew around.” Influencing this practice, he says, is the fact that “92 percent of the [EPIRB] activations are false alarms.”

In this case, the standby crew of a Cormorant helicopter was brought on duty at 4:50 p.m., nearly 1 hour and 20 minutes after the first EPIRB signal was received from the Melina and Keith II. It was another hour and 20 minutes later — fully 2 hours and 40 minutes after that first signal — that the helicopter was airborne.

“The [daytime helicopter] crew could have been held,” says MacDonald, the SAR adviser. He says the policy that led to the decision to send the crew home will be reviewed. But, he adds, “On the boater’s side of things, the notion of what those phone numbers provided [in the EPIRB registration] are there for — to get that location pinned down,” should be highlighted. “In the case of a pleasure vessel that doesn’t have a [Vessel Monitoring System], the contacts are the only way to determine where the boat is.”

David Bussey, Ralph’s lawyer, points out that Melina and Keith II was equipped with a Vessel Monitoring System that tracked her by satellite and sent a position to the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans every hour. “The point of the matter is that DFO, Coast Guard and search-and-rescue had access to his VMS data and could have located the position of the vessel instantly,” he says. Moreover, he says, “Before leaving for fishing, Mr. Ralph was required to contact the [DFO] and provide them with information about where he was going, for how long, and what species would be fished.”

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada is investigating the incident and was expected to issue a report this spring. The report will consider the SAR efforts as well as the cause of the accident. Bussey is awaiting that report and what it says about the Melina and Keith II’s design.

“There were 16 of these vessels built in the late ’80s,” Bussey says. “Four of them have turned over.” The most recent was Nov. 1, 2006, he says. All hands were rescued. “Same thing” as the Melina and Keith II capsizing, the lawyer says. “Hauling gear, and it flipped. I don’t know if it was something wrong with the design.”

“I don’t think there are any problems with design,” says builder Humby. “They’ve been fishing 20 years.” The problem comes when fishing boats are modified without accounting for the effect of the changes on the vessel’s stability, he says.

“That boat was fishing for I think it was 15, 16 years and didn’t have a problem, so there was something that you do with the boat during the years that probably contributes to the problem,” Humby says. “All sorts of things have been done [to the Melina and Keith II]. From the original boat to what it is now is completely different.” He says the boat was designed with a purpose: cod fishing. “Change that purpose without going to a naval architect, you leave yourself wide open. Too bad.”

Commercial fishermen have a long history of eschewing naval architects in favor of modifying their boats themselves, often with a deadly impact on the boat’s stability. Maryland naval architect John Womack, who designs commercial vessels, says the attitude of U.S. fishermen improved after the New Bedford, Mass., scallop boat Northern Edge sank in December 2004, killing five of the six crewmen.

“We’ve seen a lot of emphasis now on training starting to come out,” says Womack, who serves on a Coast Guard advisory committee and developed a moving ship model to demonstrate to fishermen how fishing boat modifications can create the sort of instability that causes capsizes.

Some of those closest to the Melina and Keith II tragedy look to place blame not on the fishermen or the boats but on the government agencies involved in the rescue attempt. Among these is Mary Connolly, sister of crewmember Anthony Molloy.

“I don’t know what happened with the boat, and I guess it will probably never be known,” she says. “It happened so fast, I don’t think anybody had time to analyze the situation. I do have issues with why he [Molloy] was lost. Our system failed us. I mean failed desperately. Four men were lost that should never have been lost. The response time was too slow.”

“We’re creating quite a bit of fuss about that [response time] and saying the Coast Guard was negligent and the men died unnecessarily,” says lawyer Bussey. “As a result of the investigation and the hard questions the families are asking of the Coast Guard, Transport Canada came up with these eight charges against the captain. It’s our point of view this is nothing but an attempt to deflect the blame from the Coast Guard to the skipper.”

Transport Canada says the charges against Ralph result from its investigation of the incident, but it makes no claim that the infractions with which Ralph is charged contributed to the accident. Those charges are:

• permitting a person without an appropriate certificate to act as a member of the deck watch

• operating his small fishing vessel without a sufficient number of certified mates to ensure minimum deck watch

• operating without a proper listening watch on a VHF radiotelephone receiver

• failing to maintain a proper deck watch

• failing to maintain a proper lookout

• failing to have a person in charge of the watch who was capable of operating the navigation equipment

• failing to have on board a valid certificate

• failing to take adequate steps to ensure the crew understood the use of the life-saving and firefighting equipment

The four victims of the Melina and Keith II sinking were Molloy; Capt. Ralph’s brother, Justin Ralph; Ivan Dyke; and Joshua Williams. Surviving with Shawn Ralph were Bernard Dyke, Philip McDonald and Igor Dragushevsky.

Safety lesson:

When you register an EPIRB, make sure to give contact phone numbers for people who can be reached and who will know where the boat is, how many people are on board and other particulars.