In August of 2020, multiple U.S. Coast Guard units received distress calls stating that the F/V ARCTIC FOX II, a 66-foot commercial fishing boat, had begun taking on water. The vessel was located about 85 miles off Cape Flattery, Washington at the time of trouble.
The three crewmembers aboard were getting ready to abandon ship and reported that they were all wearing survival suits. Once on the scene, the U.S. Coast Guard aircrew immediately spotted a lifeboat. One survivor was aboard and hoisted into the helicopter. Tragically, the other two crewmembers did not survive. The fishermen were all wearing survival suits; however it was later reported that the suits were old, in poor repair, and the seams were cracked. The suits that were meant to save lives were not watertight.
This tragic accident highlights the need for all vessel owners, masters, and captains to test the functionality of immersion suits stored on their vessels. Under federal law, it is the duty of the person in charge of the vessel to make sure all lifesaving gear is properly maintained and inspected before each voyage.
In addition to proper maintenance of suits, proper training and practice is essential. The North Pacific Fishing Vessel Owners’ Association Vessel Safety Program offers U.S. Coast Guard-approved courses, teaching emergency preparedness and safety to all maritime workers. Students learn how to get into a Neoprene immersion suit, which covers the entire body except for the nose and eyes. Immersion suits are required to have a whistle and a light, and are designed to keep a person afloat and warm for hours. It is estimated that more than 49,000 people have participated in this important training which also covers how to deploy, board and flip a life raft and create a human chain within the water.
The Seattle Fishermen’s Memorial offers Washington state fisherman and vessels a partial tuition rebate for certain safety programs. Visit bit.ly/3JyaNxa for more information.
How to care for an immersion suit
The U.S. Coast Guard considers immersion suits the mariners’ “parachute”. Take care of it, and it will be there for you if you need it.
- Make sure the suit size and donning instructions can be seen through the clear storage bag that protects the suit, that the storage bag is properly sealed and in good condition.
- Store immersion suits in a dry and clean location, but away from heat and UV rays, conditions which cause textiles to rapidly deteriorate. Federal regulations require that suits be stored in a place that is readily accessible to anyone in the berthing area or the regular work area.
- Suits must be dry and in good repair. The Fishing Vessel Safety Act, 46 CFR 28.140 requires that nearly all commercial fishing vessels carry survival equipment, and that vessel owners inspect, clean, and repair suits in accordance with the manufacturers’ guidelines. If there are any holes, punctures, rips, or tears, have the suit repaired by a professional or the manufacturer.
- Check that the zipper is in working order, zips smoothly the entire length of the suit and that it is not broken, stuck, or missing teeth. Rubbing beeswax on the teeth of the zipper will keep it working smoothly. Any suit with a broken zipper should be immediately taken in for repairs. The suit must be able to zip open and closed to be useful.
- Is the buoyancy ring properly attached? Check the inflation hose for any deterioration or leaks. Inflate the bladder and check for leaks. If possible, submerge the suit in water and look for any air bubbles, which could indicate that the suit has a leak. Again, any leaks need to be repaired by a professional.
- How is the reflective tape? If it is peeling or missing, replace it.
- Immersion suits are fitted with PFD lights and whistles. Make sure these are in working order and that batteries are fresh. It is a good idea to replace batteries yearly. We recommend making this part of your routine on April 6th, which is National 406 Day.
- Ensure that all crewmembers are properly trained. Monthly drills and practice putting suits on quickly (strive for under 1 minute) is recommended.
How long do immersion suits last?
Immersion suits do not have an official expiration date and the life of the suit depends a great deal on how it is cared for. Suits more than 10 years old should be inspected and tested by professionals. Suits older than 20 years should be retired; they are no longer serviceable.
Most accidents are avoidable by proper maintenance and by following proper procedures. Maritime law is in place to ensure that injured workers have a way to recover damages from the responsible party when injuries are due to negligence, neglect, improper procedures, faulty equipment, or unseaworthiness. It is imperative that you retain legal representation if you feel any of your rights have been ignored or violated. Contact Stacey and Jacobsen, PLLC today for a free and fair consultation and assessment of your case.