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Preparing for a Hazardous Job

There's more to preparing for a commercial fishing trip than buying groceries, fuel, ice, and bait. Not only for commercial fishermen, this article discusses the safety preparations every captain should undertake before leaving port.

Adapted from, Beating the Odds: A Guide to Commercial Fishing Safety, 7th Edition, Jerry Dzugan and Susan Clark Jensen, 2018

At 7:24 a.m. on November 15, 1985, the F/V Lasseigne was in trouble 20 miles off Siletz Bay, Oregon. She had a bad list and her captain was unable to get to the fish hold to tell where the water was coming from. He radioed the Coast Guard for assistance and was told to make sure the crew had their life jackets on. They did.

At 8:38 a.m. a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter crew sighted the now-capsized 73-foot trawler. No one is sure what happened during the 59 minutes after the distress call. When the Coast Guard arrived, all three men aboard were dead. Two were found floating in their life jackets. The third, whose body was never recovered, was presumed to have been trapped in the vessel. When the ship sank, it had on board one immersion suit, which no one used. It had no inflatable life raft.

Families of the three men sued the vessel’s owner. On May 8, 1987, Judge Edward Leavy, U.S. District Court, found the Lasseigne unseaworthy with the privity and knowledge of its owners. Three of the areas specifically cited by Judge Leavy follow:

  1. Fishing an Unstable Vessel: Conversion of the Lasseigne from a shrimper to a trawler added nets, steel net reels and trawl doors, and a steel hydraulic winch that weighed more than half a ton and was mounted on the mast. Stability tests were never done after the conversion.

  2. Uncorrected Problems: Known difficulties with the bilge pump and bilge alarm had not been fixed.

  3. Lack of Lifesaving Equipment: Judge Leavy stated, “I find as a matter of law that the lack of a suitable life raft and survival suits for each crewmember rendered this vessel unseaworthy.” Also noted was the failure to maintain a watch at night.


The point about lifesaving equipment is especially significant. When the case was heard, life rafts and survival suits were not required by law or regulation, but the decision sets a precedent that holds vessel owners legally responsible for having adequate safety equipment on board their vessel. As Judge Leavy noted in his decision, “The owner of a vessel has an absolute and non-delegable duty to provide a seaworthy ship.”


Having adequate survival equipment doesn’t just make good legal sense. It can and does save lives. It is essential in one of the most dangerous industries in the United States. Proper preparation begins with your care of the vessel, and includes survival equipment, training, onboard drills, and having the will to live.

Since the implementation of fishing vessel safety regulations and training in the early 1990s, the fatality rate has dropped by about two-thirds in Alaska. Other parts of the country also have seen a decrease in fatalities. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) fishermen are doing better surviving the loss of their vessels, but deaths due to man overboard and deck injuries are problems that have shown little improvement.


Commercial Fisherman Practices Righting a Life Raft at a Fishing Vessel Drill Conductor Class


Your fishing vessel is more than a vehicle to get to and from the fishing grounds and a storage place for your catch. It’s also your temporary home—your shelter from the ocean and elements. Lose it, and you are instantly in danger.

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.

Regular maintenance is worth the time. Poor maintenance can mean disaster later. Crew member performs vessel maintenance in a boatyard.

Regular maintenance is worth the time. Poor maintenance can mean disaster later.

Survival Equipment

Life Rafts

Do life rafts help save lives? Just ask survivors from the F/Vs Tidings (AK), Della C (CA), Unimak (WA), Rebecca (AK), Captain Smoke (SC), and Alaska Ranger (AK), to name a few. Life rafts were a key factor in their survival. A study by Jennifer Lincoln, PhD, showed that life rafts increased the chances of survival by 15 times.   Life rafts work because they shelter you from the environment. Although all rafts are configured a bit differently, they all share some common features.

When considering which raft to buy, compare brands, ask other fishermen which raft they recommend and why, and talk to people who have survived in a raft. Some marine safety and survival training courses offer the opportunity to try out and compare rafts.


Although there are many features to consider, it is important to make sure the raft on your boat meets the applicable regulatory requirements, and is made by a company that will stand by its product. In northern waters, a raft should have an inflatable floor to insulate you from the cold water, and a canopy to protect you from the elements. If you are required to have a U.S. Coast Guard-approved raft, make sure yours meets that minimum standard before purchasing it. 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. 

Mount the raft where it will be accessible in an emergency, yet protected from damage. Apply a non-skid surface to the deck near the raft’s cradle, and make sure the raft can float free if the vessel capsizes. Do not place the canister near exhaust stacks; their heat and gases can damage the canister’s rubber gasket and cause it to lose its watertight integrity. 

Once you have positioned the raft, secure its painter to the cradle. The life raft cradle must be hard-mounted to the deck so it does not float free with the life raft. The painter is attached to the CO2 inflator on the raft and must be pulled to inflate the raft. The painter has a weak link that is designed to break and allow the inflated raft to break free if the vessel sinks. Don’t lash the raft to the vessel with extra line. You might not be able to cut it loose when the vessel is sinking. Avoid lashing gear onto the raft. You cannot afford to have anything interfere with the raft’s deployment when you need it.

To help ensure that your raft will work when you need it, have it serviced once a year by an authorized agent. Manufacturers provide certificates to authorized repacking and service stations. Ask the raft repacker to show you the certificate from your raft’s  manufacturer. 

An annual inspection is advantageous for several reasons. Outdated flares and perishable items will be replaced, and wet rafts can be dried out. (In wet climates, water can work its way into raft canisters.) Regular inspections can help extend the life of your raft. 

Servicing also provides an excellent opportunity to see your raft or one of the same design inflated. Most servicing facilities welcome the opportunity to show off their product. Take advantage of it. 

Common features of a life raft.

Common features of a life raft.

Immersion (Survival) Suits

Immersion suits have helped save hundreds of lives because they have excellent hypothermia protection (insulation) and flotation. To be most effective in an emergency, your suit must be maintained, stored where it will stay dry, and placed where you can get to it in an emergency (not under your bunk). In addition, you must know how to put it on in a hurry. To be able to do this quickly in an  emergency, especially in the dark, takes practice. 

Wearing an immersion suit will increase by a factor of seven your likelihood of survival if you have to abandon ship.

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 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. 

It’s a good idea to have a variety of signals to use in different circumstances because some are more effective at night, others during the day. Signals can be mounted on the vessel, stored on deck in a waterproof container, packed in your life raft, and kept in your immersion suit pocket, your personal survival kit, and on your person. The type and quantity of signals will be determined by your personal preference, the situation, Coast Guard requirements, and cost. 

Want a signal that’s not affected by weather, darkness, or daylight, that constantly signals for help once it is turned on, and whose signal can be detected over great distances and can lead rescuers directly to you? If so, you need an EPIRB. EPIRBS now have GPS built in for location accuracy.
Experience has shown that the use of EPIRBs results in rescuers being on scene in much less time than it takes when EPIRBs are not activated. Time is of the essence in an emergency. 

To ensure that your EPIRB will work effectively:

  • Install it according to the manufacturer’s recommendations. Improper mounting can render it ineffective. Float-free types must have no obstructions overhead that would prevent their release.

  • Test it at least once a month by following the manufacturer’s instructions, and record the test date and results in a log book. The 406 mHz EPIRBs can be tested anytime. Satellite processing of distress signals from 121.5 and 243 mHz emergency beacons was terminated on February 1, 2009.

  • Be sure the on/off switch is in the proper position whenever you leave port. For most 406 mHz EPIRBs this will be the “armed” or “automatic” setting. Your EPIRB’s instructions will indicate the correct position.

  • Replace the battery and hydrostatic release before they become outdated. Ensure that the EPIRB is replaced in its cradle correctly.

If you purchase a new or used EPIRB,  you must register it with NOAA as required by law. If you change any information on your registration (such as phone number, address, bought a new boat, etc.) you must update the registration with NOAA. Also, if you sell your EPIRB, notify NOAA that you have done so, inform the buyer that they must register the beacon for themselves. Otherwise, you may be contacted by rescue authorities if it is activated. Please provide the new owner our phone number or this web page so they can register the beacon.

Register your 406 mHz EPIRB online at or download and mail an original, signed registration form to NOAA at:

1315 East West Hwy
Silver Spring, MD 20910

You may also fax your registration form to NOAA at 301-817-4565. 

Upon registration NOAA will send you a dated decal. You must attach it to your EPIRB. Every two years NOAA will send you a form to update your contact information. After they receive the form, NOAA will send you a new decal that must be placed on the EPIRB. This registration system aids search and rescue personnel in finding vessels in distress and helps silence false alarms. Be sure to register the EPIRB in your name if buying it with a used boat.

Non-Radio Emergency Signals
Non-radio signals can also be very effective. The strategic use of flares has helped rescuers locate many survivors, but flares can be dangerous if handled improperly. Outdated flares have a very high failure rate, so don’t let them expire or they may not work when you need them. Become familiar with how your flares work. Some cannot be operated easily when you are wearing an immersion suit. 

Other emergency signals transmit or reflect light to communicate your need for help. Signal mirrors reflect a strong beam of light on sunny days, but can also work (although at a reduced intensity) in hazy weather conditions. Strobe lights are good at night—as long as the battery works and you are not trying to signal for help in a forest of longline gear that has a strobe on each pole. Don’t underestimate the value of reflective tape. Some survivors have been rescued when a searcher’s light reflected off the tape on their immersion suit or life raft.

An orange flag with a black square and black circle in the middle is an internationally recognized distress signal. Regardless of the signals you choose, they can’t help you if you don’t have them with you.

Flooding Control Kit

Training and Drills

Survival Psychology

Personal Survival Equipment

Will your clothes help keep you warm and afloat if you fall overboard or need to abandon ship? Although you may not think of them as such, your clothing and the items in your pockets are part of your survival equipment. 

In cold climates, clothes keep you warm by trapping air. Fabrics vary in their ability to trap air and thus keep you warm, especially when they are wet. In hot climates cotton is comfortable to work in and gives you needed protection from the sun. In cold climates cotton can keep you warm—as long as it stays dry. However, cotton readily absorbs water and other liquids, and as soon as it gets wet it loses most of its ability to trap air and keep you warm. Wet cotton clothing can quickly cool you, which is good in hot climates, but it takes a substantial time to dry in cool, wet climates. 

Wool and polypropylene clothing are a better choice in cool climates than cotton because they can help keep you warm even when they are wet. Polypropylene dries much faster than either wool or cotton, but it is flammable and leaves molten globs of fabric on your skin when it burns. Wool is heavy when wet, but it is not very flammable. Carefully consider your options. Proper clothing can make a significant difference in a survival situation.

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, and personal health considerations, and tailor the contents to fit your situation. Consider including: 

  • Shelter helpers such as nylon cord, wire, duct tape, plastic bags, space blankets, etc.

  • Signals such as a mirror, whistle, surveyor’s tape, brightly colored bandanas, small flares, fire starters, etc.

  • Personal health considerations such as prescription medication, tampons, bug repellent, contact lens cleaner and holder, food, etc.

  • Fire starters such as waterproof matches, a lighter, candles, magnesium fire starter, steel wool, and synthetic fire starting gel or sticks.

  • 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. It won’t do you any good if you don’t have it with you. 


Preparing for an emergency starts with the recognition that an accident is possible. Solid preparation will not only give you peace of mind, it also helps save lives, and can keep you out of the courtroom.

¹ Factors Associated with Surviving Commercial Fishing Vessel Sinkings in Alaska, Devin L. Lucas, PhD, Samantha L. Case, MPH, Jennifer M. Lincoln, PhD, and Joanna R. Watson, DPhil, Safety Science, Volume 101, January 2018, Pages 190-196

² Evaluation of an Alaskan Marine Safety Training Program, Ron Perkins, MPH, Public Health Reports, Volume 110, November/December 1995, Pages 701-702

³ Leach, J. (1994). Survival Psychology. London: MacMillan Press Ltd

Preparing for a Hazardous Job

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No fisherman likes to think he will need to use survival equipment, but a life raft, immersion (survival) suit, emergency signals, flooding control kit, and training can help save your life. Survival equipment that helps protect you from the cold water, wind, rain, and snow, and allows you to signal for assistance will help keep you alive until you are rescued.

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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:

  • Various size hose clamps

  • A 5/16" driver (for hose clamps)

  • A headlight

  • Soft wood conical plugs

  • Wooden wedges

  • Rags (for plugs and wedges)

  • Underwater epoxy

  • Duct tape

  • Hacksaw

  • Oakum

  • Manila twine

  • Rubber gasket material

  • 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.

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 vessel

  • 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 so equipped

  • Make radio distress calls

  • Use visual distress signals

  • Activate the general alarm

  • 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.

Most people want to live. It is not a matter of having “a will to survive” that allows one to survive an emergency at sea. It is how one reacts to an emergency that is important. According to Professor John Leach, who has studied survivors for over 30 years, people react in the following ways to emergencies:


  • 12-25 percent remain calm and are able to assess the situation and plan and act appropriately,

  • 75 percent are stunned, bewildered, or in disbelief or denial,

  • 10-25 percent show signs of inappropriate behavior such as confusion, weeping, screaming, or paralyzing anxiety.


The question being asked by researchers in this area is, “Why are so many people dying when they shouldn’t?” There are well-documented cases of “weak” crewmembers surviving against all the odds and “strong” members dying before they should. The answer is not well understood but lies in the way the brain processes information in an emergency. The brain is often overloaded with information, which it cannot always process quickly enough to make good decisions.

It is known, however, that if people acknowledge risks and develop a plan for managing these risks, including practicing emergency drills, they have a much better chance of acting effectively and in an appropriate manner when problems develop. 

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