The fatal consequences of a vessel’s stability loss
20 February 2017
Posted by Glenn Budden
On the afternoon of 05 September 2015, the Caledonian, a large 100-foot fishing vessel, capsized 20 nautical miles off the west coast of Vancouver Island. A key question for investigators at the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) was why? After all, the Caledonian had caught and packed millions of pounds of fish, in all kinds of weather and sea conditions, for nearly 40 years. What could have been so different this time? And of the 4 crew members on board, why did only one survive?
The last question is easier to answer: the sole survivor was the only one wearing a personal flotation device (PFD). And although the industry is starting to push for broader use of PFDs, many fishermen still don't wear them, despite the obvious risk: you just never know when you could end up in the water.
The TSB's investigation report revealed that the capsizing was caused by a loss of vessel stability. One of the biggest factors in this was operating practices, such as storing fuel in the rear tanks rather than the centre ones, and the way the catch was loaded and stored. Another factor was a nearly 20% increase in the vessel's lightship weight (weight before adding fuel, water, ice, gear, and supplies for the trip) since its previous (and only) stability assessment, in 1976.
On the day of the occurrence, these factors meant that the vessel floated almost half a metre lower in the water. The crew members were unaware that the vessel's safe operating limits had changed over the years, and that the operating practices were putting them and the vessel at risk. As a result, what was to be the last haul of the trip ended in tragedy.
When the first bag of fish was hauled aboard, it was stored in the centre port hold, and that's when the vessel started leaning toward the left. The lean increased after the second bag of fish came on board, and water began to cover the deck. Despite the master's attempt to correct the lean by accelerating and making a right turn, the vessel capsized within a couple of minutes.
Two of the crew members lost their lives during the capsizing. Afterward, the master and the mate (who was wearing a PFD) were able to climb onto the overturned hull, where they clung until it sank some 6 hours later, at which point the vessel's life raft deployed. Only the mate was subsequently able to swim to the raft and climb inside; the master, who was not wearing a PFD, drowned.
In hopes of preventing such an accident from happening again, the TSB issued 5 recommendations. Two of these address the issue of personal flotation devices, while the other 3 deal with vessel stability and the adequacy of the information available to the crew.
Making sure crews have the stability information they need shouldn't be complicated. The maximum operating waterline, for instance, could be indicated by a simple line on the hull. And maximum permitted loads could be specified in relevant units, like total catch weight or the safe number of traps. The key is to make the information relevant and easily measurable.
But fishermen don't need to wait for regulations in order to make their operations safer. Simple steps such as wearing a PFD and learning what their vessel's safe operating limits are, and staying within them, can save lives. So why not prepare—to stay alive?
Glenn Budden has been a Senior Marine Investigator at the TSB since 2008. Prior to joining the TSB, Glenn owned and operated a commercial fishing business. In addition to holding a Fishing Masters II certificate, he has 35 years' experience in the fishing industry, operating, managing and advising on several types of fishing vessels and fisheries on both coasts. Glenn has only one child left living at home full time, which gives him time to play golf again and more hockey with his wife Leslie.
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