Preparation key to cold water survival - Soundings Online

Preparation key to cold water survival

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Editor’s note: Although the following story, written by a Coast Guard public affairs specialist, focuses on commercial mariners, the safety lessons stressed within apply to all mariners, especially those who ply local waters off-season.

Editor’s note: Although the following story, written by a Coast Guard public affairs specialist, focuses on commercial mariners, the safety lessons stressed within apply to all mariners, especially those who ply local waters off-season.

It was Dec. 20, 2004 when the New Bedford, Mass., fishing vessel, Northern Edge, capsized and five of the six crewmembers perished. The lone survivor, Pedro Furtado, a 23-year-old resident of New Bedford, was plucked from a liferaft by the crew aboard another New Bedford fishing vessel, Dianne Marie, in seas as high as 10 feet, winds 20 to 25 knots, temperatures at 40 degrees and snow squalls cutting down on visibility.

A Coast Guard investigation that followed the sinking of Northern Edge found that insufficient survival equipment and a lack of knowledge to use it was key in the deaths of the five fishermen.

On the anniversary of one of the region’s most tragic fishing accidents, crew from the Coast Guard Commercial Fishing Vessel Safety Program held drills in Boston Harbor aimed at increasing safety among the commercial fishing community.

Lt. Cmdr. John Buckley, an inspector and head of Boston’s program, stresses to the fishing community: “Use your survival equipment. Help yourselves by staying alive until we can rescue you.”

Troy Dwyer, a fisherman who has participated in the program and has been fishing New England waters for 18 years, says he knows fishing is dangerous. “But my dad was a fisherman and now here I am. There’s nothing like chasing fish.”

While his nine-member crew is out on the fishing vessel, Atlantis, in risky New England waters, the Coast Guard continues to work toward decreasing casualties by teaching fishermen how to survive in case of emergency through the Commercial Fishing Vessel Safety Program.

Implemented in 1991, the program helps New England fishermen be prepared, through the assistance of Coast Guard inspectors like Buckley, who checks survival equipment and tests the crews’ knowledge of survival drills at their convenience.

Crewmembers are also subjected to a crew-wide check of safety drill knowledge. Currently, commercial fishermen are not required to keep a log with dates of drills practiced, but safety drill knowledge is mandatory.

“I’ll randomly ask a crewmember to walk me through a drill or put on a survival suit. If they have no idea then they fail the exam,” says Buckley. “I’ll come back in a week and give them another chance. We want to give fishermen the tools to save themselves.”

The rescue of Gloucester fisherman John Sanfillipo on Nov. 26, 2005, after his vessel caught fire, is proof of how effective dockside examinations can be to the fishing community, Buckley says.

Just a few weeks before Sanfillipo’s rescue, he had a Coast Guard dockside inspection. Buckley was the inspector and told Sanfillipo to move his survival suit above deck instead of in a storage space below. Buckley also demonstrated to Sanfillipo the proper way to wear the suit.

The information came in handy the day his engine room caught fire and Sanfillipo had only moments to throw on his survival suit and jump into the 47-degree water. He was rescued by another vessel in the area, Carla Maria, and transferred by the Coast Guard to emergency medical services, who took him to the hospital.

Easy access and the knowledge of the correct way to wear a survival suit led to Sanfillipo’s survival. Buckley stresses tragedy can happen fast and being prepared is the answer.

“It’s a chain reaction. It’s a bad night, gale force winds, rough seas and icy conditions. The fishing boat has a large catch onboard, and the crew is young, inexperienced and exhausted. Without any warning, everything can go wrong and seconds count,” says Buckley.

Eight commercial fishermen died in New England in 2004 and six more in 2005.

Coast Guard inspectors hold fishing vessel safety workshops teaching fishermen how to properly use survival equipment. For information about these workshops and the program, go to www.uscg.mil/hq/g-m/cfvs. n

Kelly Turner is a Third Class Public Affairs Specialist (PA3) with the Coast Guard’s First District External Affairs in Boston.