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Safety Problems Led To Fishing Vessel Sinking

AUGUST 30, 2013
Only one of seven crewmen survived the March 24, 2009 sinking of the scallop fishing vessel LADY MARY. The United States Coast Guard has now released their comprehensive report into the sinking of the vessel, concluding that a combination of safety problems contributed to the vessel’s sinking and the crewmen’s deaths.

The Coast Guard determined that sometime in the early morning hours the crew of the LADY MARY removed the lazarette hatch to utilize an electric pump to dewater the lazarette compartment located in the stern of the vessel. Underwater photographs of the sunken vessel showed the lazarette hatch open with a dewatering hose coming out of the transom and discharging over the transom. When the pump was being utilized, the lazarette hatch could not be closed. The Coast Guard concluded that it was probable the LADY MARY’s lazarette flooded through this open hatch, which then allowed water to board the vessel up the transom. Two of the LADY MARY’s four deck scuppers were improperly blocked with metal plates. The blocking of the scuppers allowed waves coming aboard the vessel to be trapped between the deck’s bulkworks. The combination of these factors, according to the Coast Guard, led to progressive down flooding of the vessel and loss of stability.

Remarkably, the Coast Guard found that more of the crew of the LADY MARY could have survived the sinking. 22 vessels were within 6.5 miles of the LADY MARY; however, the captain and the crew failed to get off an intelligible Mayday call or set off a flare. Only a portion of the crew were able to don their survival suits, and the Coast Guard investigation found the crew had not been properly drilled and trained in abandon ship procedures. Although the LADY MARY’s EPIRB signal was properly activated, the EPIRB was not properly registered, thus delaying the Coast Guard’s search. Further delaying the search was the fact that the LADY MARY’s EPIRB was not GPS linked.

The LADY MARY was a 71-foot uninspected commercial fishing vessel homeported in Cape May, New Jersey. The vessel was fishing for scallops 60 nautical miles off the Cape of Delaware when the vessel was lost. The surviving crewman was able to provide details about the sinking and the crew’s efforts to abandon ship and don survival gear. Additionally, following the sinking the vessel was located on the ocean floor in 200 feet of water. Commercial divers were able to examine and photograph the condition of the vessel to discover information as to the cause of the vessel sinking.

The Coast Guard report states in part: “The investigation revealed that the LADY MARY’s sinking and the loss of the crew was not due to one single factor, but rather a combination of numerous unsafe preconditions and a few unsafe decisions. For example, there were a number of modifications made to the vessel over the years, and their cumulative effect subtly lowered existing safety margins. Additionally, a lack of training, lack of experience, language barriers, fatigue, vessel loading, drug use, insufficient watertight integrity, compromised vessel subdivision, and weather, all played a role. The unsafe decisions made on the morning of March 24th included the decisions to drift, to leave the lazarette hatch open, and to leave two freeing ports blocked by solid covers.”

The investigation further noted: “Unfortunately, the investigation also revealed that the LADY MARY’s sinking was a survivable event. The vessel was outfitted with a full complement of functioning life saving equipment, and there was time for the Captain or crew to broadcast a coherent Mayday, press one of the Digital Selective Calling (DSC) alert buttons, and/or launch a flare. Due to the lack of sufficient training, the Captain and the crew were unprepared to deal with emergency situations, and that negatively affected their ability to take actions to provide for their survival.”

Substantial modifications, additions and subtractions had been made to the LADY MARY since it was constructed in 1969. Despite these modifications, the vessel did not have a stability report. Currently, vessels the size of the LADY MARY are not required to carry a stability report.

The LADY MARY had also been subject to several voluntary Coast Guard dockside safety inspections. As noted above, these inspections documented that the vessel carried the safety equipment required by current safety regulations. What these inspections do not establish is that the crew of a vessel is properly trained and educated in the use of the vessel safety equipment. The LADY MARY casualty report stressed to vessel owners that the Coast Guard’s Commercial Fishing Vessel Safety Exams check some aspects of vessel safety, but they are not an actual comprehensive check of whether a vessel is free from danger, risk or injury.

The dangers of flooding in the lazarette of a fishing vessel has been well documented in the Alaska Fishing fleet. Flooding of the lazarette has been at the center of an ongoing casualty in the sinking of the LADY CECELIA off the coast of Washington in 2012. Three crewmen and a Federal Fisheries Observer were lost in the LADY CECELIA sinking.

Based upon damage to the vessel’s rudder, experts retained by the vessel owner theorized that the vessel had been involved in a collision. However, the Coast Guard’s analysis ruled out collision as a possible cause of the LADY MARY sinking.

As a result of the LADY MARY sinking, the Coast Guard is making further safety recommendations for commercial fishing vessels. The LADY MARY casualty report is available on line for review at the Coast Guard’s web site: uscgnews.com.