Terry Nugent and Bob Pink worked feverishly to stem the stream of cold water jetting from a crack in the aluminum hull. Precious seconds ticked away as the men grabbed rags, wood scraps and anything else they could find to jam in the opening, but the leak seemed unstoppable, the flow too powerful. Just when all seemed lost, a simple piece of neoprene wedged in the crack with a cedar shingle reduced the torrent to a trickle. Nugent and Pink stepped back and breathed a sigh of relief, only to rejoin the battle seconds later when water began spurting from an unseen hole in a nearby pipe. It was like something out of a boater’s nightmare, which, after all, was really the whole the point.
Nugent and Pink were participants in an intensive, one-day safety-training course sponsored and coordinated by the Massachusetts Fishing Partnership, the Coast Guard, the City of New Bedford and a private marine-supply company. And the leak-prone “boat” they were trying to save was actually a disaster-control simulator operated by a Coast Guardsman who manipulated hidden valves to create incessant havoc for the trainees.
The course is one of several held in various Massachusetts towns and cities each spring, with a team of professional marine-safety advisors serving as instructors. Although the curriculum is geared primarily toward commercial fishermen, recreational boaters are encouraged to participate, as a lot of the information applies to both groups. This winter and spring (2014), courses will be held in Chatham, Gloucester, Marshfield, Sandwich, Boston and Falmouth (see below for dates).
In the South Coast-area, the course is usually held at the University of Massachusetts’ School for Marine Sciences and Technology (SMAST) in New Bedford, which is where the aforementioned scenario took place a few years back. Here’s how the full day transpired:
Know Your Safety Gear
Things got underway at 8:00 a.m. with free coffee and donuts in the lobby, followed by an hour-long introduction that involved sobering video footage of disasters and rescues at sea. After that we were divided into 5 groups and assigned specific training stations. For me, that meant a visit with Ted Williams, the former skipper of a commercial trawler who had switched gears to become a certified safety instructor and advisor.
His job was to instruct us on the world of marine safety gear. Arrayed on a long table outside the SMAST building was an assortment of flares, signal rockets, strobe lights, EPIRBs, whistles, mirrors and more. Williams described how each item worked and how it could be used to save a life or summon help. Next he walked us through the various steps involved in deploying a life raft correctly and detailed the surprising number of items contained inside: food and water for several days, a signal mirror, a patch kit, a first-aid kit, a whistle, a special knife for cutting the tether to the boat, medicine and a mylar “space blanket.” When he came to the last item, Williams related the ironic story of a commercial fisherman who died of hypothermia after making it to the raft. Had his crewmates known there was a space blanket onboard, Williams said, the man might have survived.
Life Rafts & Flares:
Throughout the session, Williams continually stressed the importance of trying to stay calm and focused during an emergency. All the survival gear in the world won’t do much good if you’re too freaked out to use it, he instructed, and in many cases a panicked crewman can even be dangerous to other survivors.
“Give everyone [in the raft] a job to distract them. Keep busy,” Williams urged. “You can survive for a long time in a raft. Remember that if you’re in an immersion suit, can make it to the raft and have a functioning EPIRB, you’re chances of being rescued with a few hours are very good, even 200 miles offshore.”
Next, Williams led us to a nearby pier, where our group practiced setting off flares and rockets. The latter are a must-have for offshore boaters because of their greater visibility. However, as they pack the firepower of a shotgun shell, they must be used with caution.
I was also impressed by the large orange plumes emitted by the smoke flares we tested. They’re more expensive than the handheld flares most boaters are required to carry, but are clearly more effective at getting the attention of rescuers during a daytime emergency.
After our session with Williams, we stepped inside a classroom for a lesson on how to handle onboard medical emergencies. Dave Blaney, also a former commercial fishing captain, started by telling us how during a trip on Nantucket Sound he was knocked unconscious by a trawl cable. When he came to, the entire crew was standing around him, unsure of what to do. “Eventually they picked me up and moved me into the cabin, which is the worst thing they could have done, especially if I had received a spine injury,” Blaney said, pointing out how important it is for every member of the crew to know something about treating medical emergencies.
For the rest of the hour, Blaney reviewed with us how to recognize and treat shock, hypothermia, cuts, burns, cardiac arrest and fractures, and demonstrated how to use a portable defibrillator—an item that sells for around $1,000 and features easy-to-follow, automated verbal instructions. He also pointed out how important it is to inform fellow crewmembers of existing medical conditions and where any prescription medication is located. It was a lot to cover in an hour, but it drove home how self-reliant a crew needs to be when the boat is 100-plus miles from the nearest hospital.
There were lessons here for recreational boaters, of course. For example, would you know what to do if a friend suddenly suffered a heart attack on the water? Would your first-aid kit be able to handle much more than a superficial cut? Would you even be able to find your first-aid kit?
Immersion Suit Training
These questions lingered as we made our way down to the giant seawater-filled tank for a session on immersion suits, which the fishermen had been instructed to bring with them. Instructors Tom Toolis and Dana Collyer informed us that these one-piece suits, which are mandatory equipment for every commercial fisherman, are perhaps the most important means of survival if a ship has to be abandoned.
The cumbersome, neoprene “Gumby” suits must be carefully maintained and remain completely watertight to be effective. Much like a tiny pinprick in an astronaut’s spacesuit can mean certain death, anything that allows water to enter the survival suit—be it a faulty zipper, a ruptured seam or a small hole—can accelerate the onset of hypothermia. The suits should be inspected every year (starting 2 years after the date of purchase), but many fishermen don’t bother. Therefore, it was no surprise that several of the older suits failed inspection when they were unpacked and examined by the instructors.
Following a rundown on safety beacons (strobes can be seen farthest by rescuers), the class donned their immersion suits and entered the tank, which was filled with chilly, green water. Working in groups of 5, the students practiced floating on their backs and clambering into a life raft—no easy feat in a Gumby suit, even in the calm water of an indoor pool.
Mayday Calls & Fire Fighting
After a half-hour lunch break, training resumed at the mayday and firefighting station run by Fred Mattera and Dan O’Connor. I was again amazed by how basic safety procedures, such as making a distress call, are taken for granted. Many commercial deckhands have never been taught how to operate a VHF or single-sideband radio, as this is usually the skipper’s job. “But what happens if the captain is fighting a fire down below and tells you to make the mayday call?” Mattera asked the group. “Do you know how to operate the radio or give out the GPS coordinates?”
I noticed a lot of embarrassed smiles on the surrounding faces, and I thought about the question myself. What if I was incapacitated while hosting a non-boating guest? Would he know how to radio the Coast Guard and tell them where to find us? Would he know how to run the boat or how to get to the nearest harbor? A brief lesson on how to use the electronics and place a distress call could solve a lot of problems, and might even save a life.
With emergency communications covered, it was time to fight fires. O’Connor explained the different types of fire extinguishers available, as well as inspection schedules. Then he and Mattera detailed the proper way to assess, approach, contain and fight an onboard fire. Later we practiced putting out actual fires ignited in a nearby test area.
Coast Guard Helo Crew Visit
|2014 Safety Training Course Schedule|
|Date||Locations for 2014|
|January 23||Falmouth: Sea Crest Resort (Drill Conductor only)|
|January 26||Falmouth: Sea Crest Resort (Survival Suits only)|
|February 20 (BST) & 21 (DC)||New Bedford: UMASS Dartmouth SMAST|
|March 6 (BST) and 7 (DC)||Sandwich: Sandwich Marina|
|March 20 (BST) and 21 (DC)||Boston: UMASS Boston|
|April 3 (BST) and 4 (DC)||Marshfield: Marshfield Yacht Club / Marina|
|April 16 (BST) and 17 (DC)||Chatham: Old Stage Harbor|
|May 15 (BST) and 16 (DC)||Gloucester: Coast Guard Station|
|June 5 (BST) and 6 (DC)||New Bedford: UMASS Dartmouth SMAST|
The final stop was the damage-control and stability station mentioned earlier, where we learned creative ways to stop leaks and how to use a high-volume dewatering pump, the kind that the Coast Guard often lowers to a flooding ship from a rescue helicopter. And speaking of helicopters, at 3:00 p.m., just as the last stations were wrapping up, a Coast Guard HH-65 Dolphin rescue chopper circled low overhead before landing in a nearby field. When the blades stopped spinning, we approached the aircraft to meet Capt. Ed Gibbons and his young crew, who told the assembled fishermen what to do during a water rescue.
The meeting was valuable, and not just from a procedural standpoint. It gave the fishermen a chance to put a human face on the Coast Guard, which too many view as an enforcement agency whose only purpose is to issue fines and make fishing more difficult.
As the fishermen dispersed and headed to their cars, immersion suits tucked under their arms, I wondered how much of the day’s lessons and advice had sunk in. After all, it was a lot of information to process. How much would they remember in an emergency? Would any of it save their lives? Six months later I had my answer.
An article in Commercial Fisheries News reported that the 5 crewmembers of a commercial fishing vessel and a federal fisheries observer were rescued after their 70’ ship went down off Nantucket in late September. The crew credited their survival to abandon-ship drills and safety courses of the kind I had just experienced. ‘Nuff said.
If you’re interested in taking a safety-training course, follow the link below or contact your local Coast Guard Marine Safety Office or a local branch of the Coast Guard Auxiliary. Your boat club or marina might also consider hiring a professional safety instructor to conduct a seminar or course for its members. The Coast Guard can recommend qualified instructors for your area.
For more information on the courses, or to register, go to FishingPartnership.org.