Lessons learned from capsize, conviction

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There were many problems aboard the Canadian commercial fishing vessel Melina and Keith II that led to its capsizing Sept. 12, 2005 off Newfoundland, according to the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.

The 65-foot steel fishing vessel had a pronounced list to starboard as it steamed on the Atlantic, its hold nearly full with a catch of shrimp and turbot. Its freeing ports — openings in the bulwark along the deck — had been welded shut, and water that came over the rails in rough seas collected on deck, adding to the list. Moreover, although the boat had undergone significant modification a year earlier to make it better able to harvest its catch, government inspectors hadn’t required the owner to have the boat’s stability tested.

Once the boat turned over, however, the eight men on board faced one more lethal problem: Although there were two life rafts mounted on top of the wheelhouse, neither could be freed by the crew and neither deployed automatically. The crew clung to their overturned boat for two hours before it finally sank. When rescuers arrived, four of the eight were lost at sea.

“The board is concerned that, until such time that regulations are put in place and fishing vessel life rafts are positioned optimally and arranged to float free in the event of the vessel sinking, crewmembers continue to be at risk in such circumstances,” the TSB report states.

“The regulations alone aren’t going to do much, if anything” says Capt. Chris Morrow, the TSB’s lead investigator in the case. “There has to be a buy-in [by the commercial fishing industry], which is a hard sell.”

For one thing, each vessel is different, Morrow notes, and when it comes to locating a life raft so it will float free in a capsize, “there’s not a one-size-fits-all” solution. Whether it is a commercial or recreational boat, there is rigging and “a lot of things a life raft can get hung up on” that have to be taken into consideration when placing the life raft, he says.

The solution is for the boat’s owner, and government inspectors, to look closely at where a raft is located and then to imagine the boat capsizing, Morrow says. “In most cases in a small boat, if you don’t have a hydrostatic release, the life raft isn’t going to be any use at all,” Morrow says. “They go over so quickly.”

This was the case with the Melina and Keith II, which had begun to haul gill nets just before noon on a sunny, late-summer day in 2005 with 6-foot seas and a 15-knot breeze. As the nets were raised, the fishing boat listed to starboard, and “waves splashed through the open hauling door on the starboard side, soaking the crew,” the TSB report states.

“With over half of the nets … recovered, the vessel took a moderate roll to starboard and shipped about [2 inches] of water on deck, which the pumps were able to manage,” the report continues. “The vessel recovered, but then took another moderate roll to starboard, shipping about [6 to 8 inches] of water. The vessel did not recover after this, and the submersible pumps could not keep up. Listing heavily, the vessel had a water depth of [8 to 10 inches] on the starboard side.”

The captain, Shawn Ralph, stopped the net hauler, took the boat out of gear, and ran to the wheelhouse to check the video monitor, looking for the problem. Just then, the boat rolled heavily, and water poured in steadily through the hauling door. With the boat well over on its starboard side, the crew gathered on the port side of the wheelhouse, where they met the skipper, who had put on an immersion suit he had retrieved from the wheelhouse.

“With the Melina and Keith II heeling heavily, all personnel … stood on the side of the wheelhouse. The crew attempted to manually release the life raft mounted on the port side of the wheelhouse top, but as it was overhead and behind the rails, they could not.”

At about 3:30 that afternoon, the boat was floating upside down with the entire crew sitting on its upturned bottom, watching a blinking EPIRB float away. By 5:40 p.m., the boat sank out from under the crew. Two non-swimmers disappeared immediately. Two more disappeared before another fishing boat arrived at 7:20 that night.

Ralph was charged by Transport Canada, which oversees commercial fishing, with eight regulations infractions that could send him to jail for six months.

On July 18, Provincial Court Judge Gregory Brown found Ralph guilty of safety infractions under the Canada Shipping Act. He was convicted of five charges, including failing to take adequate steps to ensure the crew knew how to use lifesaving equipment and failing to maintain a proper watch. He was acquitted of three other violations and did not face criminal charges in the sinking. He was fined $5,000, but planned to appeal his conviction.

The agency made no claims that the infractions contributed to the accident or caused the deaths of the crewmembers. What did contribute to those deaths were several factors, including the life rafts that were unavailable. Morrow of the TSB summarizes the problems as the fishermen’s lack of preparedness and a “culture” that pays inadequate attention to safety. There were problems in the search-and-rescue effort launched once the EPIRB signal was received, he says, but “risk preparedness” on board the boat would have “helped matters a great deal.”

The other important issue is a refusal among commercial fishermen to wear life jackets, Morrow says. “In the past, the industry said they were too bulky or too hot,” he says. “Now with the inflatable PFDs, they can’t say that anymore.” But PFDs are still not in widespread use on fishing vessels, he says. Wearing PFDs saves lives, “especially on small boats,” Morrow says. “Things happen so quickly. There’s no time to reach in and grab something.” He says the same holds true on recreational vessels.

Canada doesn’t require that PFDs be worn on commercial fishing boats, although legislation is being considered to make them mandatory, he says. “What the regulatory agencies are pushing for … is more risk-based analysis where the industry looks after itself.”

The U.S. Coast Guard says it has no regulations requiring fishing crews to wear PFDs on deck. Nor does it require any crewmember aboard fishing boats to be licensed. The TSB found the absence of a licensed mate aboard the Melina and Keith II to be a shortcoming.

“The unsafe practice of operating without a certificated mate on board left the skipper to act on his own, with no qualified watch relief and with no other designated person to assist in sending distress alerts or coordinate abandoning the vessel,” the TSB found.

Noting that the Melina and Keith II had undergone major modifications in 2004 that “adversely affected its stability,” the TSB observed that Transport Canada “did not request a stability assessment following the 2004 quadrennial inspection, nor did the owner.”

The Coast Guard says stability tests aren’t required in this country for fishing vessels smaller than 79 feet, like the Melina and Keith II.

The TSB also found that Canadian regulations regarding the registration of EPIRBs could be improved. In the case of the Melina and Keith II, Ralph had put his own phone numbers on the registration form, as directed. There was no place on the form for emergency numbers of other individuals who might be familiar with the boat’s itinerary.

“The Canadian … EPIRB registration form has space to enter two telephone numbers (that is, home and office). Neither is specified as an emergency contact,” the TSB report notes. “On the back of the form, in small print, is written: ‘Give area code and number(s) where you can be reached 24 hours a day.’

“By contrast,” the report continues, “the United States EPIRB registration form provides four spaces for ‘Primary 24-Hour Contact’ numbers as well as four for ‘Alternate 24-Hour Contact’ numbers — all in a section titled ‘Emergency Contact Information.’ This section specifies that such numbers must be for someone other than the owner. An additional four spaces are provided elsewhere on the form for contacting the owner/operator.”

When the Melina and Keith II EPIRB signal reached search-and-rescue coordinators, they spent 75 minutes dialing Shawn Ralph’s home phone on land before deciding to ask that a search helicopter be launched. An hour later, two crewmen had drowned, and two more had only a tenuous grasp on life.

Soundings also reported on the Melina and Keith II investigation in the April 2007 issue.

This article originally appeared in the December 2008 issue.