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Preparing for a Hazardous Job

Vessel maintenance at a shipyard.
Regular maintenance is worth the time. Poor maintenance can mean disaster later.

Commercial fishing is often referred to as a “dangerous” occupation, but perhaps a better description is “hazardous”. After all, danger suggests an unavoidable risk of injury or death, but hazards are manageable and competent fishermen manage hazards all the time. Hazard management starts with preparation of the boat and the equipment that the crew will rely on to keep them safe while at sea and in case of an emergency.

Vessel Preparation

Vessel safety starts in the boatyard, ensuring that the boat can stay upright, watertight, and moving in the right direction. Good skippers and deckhands know that it takes constant attention to keep a fishing vessel in top shape. Equipment, engines, electrical systems, and gear must be regularly inspected and maintained. Faulty through-hull fittings, broken bilge pumps, and unrepaired alarms can contribute to a sinking quicker than we’d like to think.

It is important to anticipate and prevent as many potential problems as possible. One of the best ways to ensure this is by doing a pre-voyage check, much as aircraft pilots perform before they take off. The frequency of inspection and repair depends on the type of vessel, its equipment, and the fishery. Keep in mind that U.S. Coast Guard safety requirements are for minimal safe conditions only. Most vessels need more safety features to make fishing conditions safe.

Survival Equipment

No fisherman likes to think he will need to use survival equipment, but a life raft, immersion (survival) suit or personal flotation device (PFD), emergency signals, flooding control kit, and training can help save your life. Make sure that your boat’s life raft is regularly inspected by a manufacturer-approved service station. Carefully choose the equipment you want packed in your raft; the coastal pack may not be enough for your situation, even if it meets the requirements where you fish. Ensure that the life raft canister is mounted where it can float free in case of sinking and secure the painter line to the vessel.

Regularly inspect and maintain immersion suits and PFDs. To be effective your immersion suit should be stored where it will stay dry and where you can get to it quickly, in an emergency. In addition, you must know how to put it on in a hurry. To do this quickly, especially in the dark, takes practice. The best place for a PFD is on your person, whenever you are on deck.

Emergency Signals

Thorough preparation also includes purchasing and maintaining appropriate emergency signals, and making sure all crewmembers know how to operate them. There are many emergency signals available to fishermen including: Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs), a Mayday call given over your VHF or SSB radio, flares, dye marker, signal mirrors, flags, strobe lights, reflective tape, and improvised signals. They all work by attracting a rescuer’s attention and conveying your need for help. The type and quantity of signals will be determined by your personal preference, the situation, Coast Guard requirements, and cost.

Flooding Control Kit

Every vessel should have a flooding control kit (also called a damage control kit). You do not have to make a perfect seal. Just slowing up the leak enough for the pumps to keep up is the goal. This kit could be housed in a 3 or 5-gallon bucket and have the most common tools and repair supplies. A few ideas for your flooding control kit include hose clamps in various sizes, a 5/16" driver for hose clamps, a headlamp, soft wood conical plugs, wooden wedges, rags for use with plugs and wedges, underwater epoxy, duct tape, a hacksaw, oakum, manila twine, rubber gasket material, and a rubber mallet.

Remember, the safest place to be is on the boat as long as you do not get tangled in gear or trapped in an enclosed space. A flooding control kit that's ready to go can save precious minutes.

Training & Drills

Do you know how to operate the survival equipment on board your vessel? Studies indicate that training is more important than any other factor in determining whether an individual reacts positively in an emergency. Drills allow you to check your equipment, reduce reaction time and mistakes, and help diminish fear and panic.

Both scheduled and spontaneous drills will help hone a crew’s reaction to an emergency. Drills can be fun, but they should not jeopardize anyone’s life. At a minimum, all crewmembers should practice how to abandon ship, fight a fire in different locations, recover a person from the water, minimize the effects of flooding, launch and recover survival craft, put on immersion suits and PFDs, put on a firefighter’s outfit and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) if the boat is so equipped, make radio distress calls, use visual distress signals, activate the general alarm, and report inoperative alarm and fire detection systems.

Studies comparing fatality rates of fishermen who had safety training to those who had none demonstrated conclusively that taking a formal safety training course, including emergency procedures and use of survival equipment, helped fishermen “beat the odds” in surviving a casualty at sea.

Personal Survival Kits

Do you regularly carry items in your pockets that can help you survive if you fall overboard or have to abandon ship? If not, put some in your pockets or make up a personal survival kit in a waterproof container that’s small enough to fit in your pocket or put in your immersion suit. When deciding what items to choose for your kit or pockets, concentrate on shelter, signals, personal health considerations, and tailor the contents to fit your situation. Consider including such as nylon cord and plastic bags; signal devices like a mirror; whistle, or fire starting materials; personal health items such as prescription medication, tampons, or bug repellent; and other items, such as a good pocket or sheath knife, fish hooks and line, lures, aluminum foil, etc. Whatever you choose, be realistic for the environment you work in.


Preparing for an emergency starts with the recognition that an accident is possible. Solid preparation will help you keep your boat, crew, and yourself safe and working for years to come.


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