Practicing for the Unthinkable Can Improve Survival for Fishermen

If your fishing boat is on fire, it can be hard not to panic and make a crucial mistake. White smoke often means an electrical fire. One of the most important first steps is to turn off the electrical systems of the vessel so there is no additional spark.

A fishermen’s safety class can help the captain and crew remember to take that critical step because they have practiced the scenario.

“I had one fisherman tell me they were using fire extinguisher after fire extinguisher on a fire because they had not turned off the electrical systems and so it kept reigniting,” said Joe Petersen, a marine safety course instructor. Another captain said the class helped him recognize an electrical fire and take the proper steps to minimize damage to his boat.

A father and son work together to fix a leak using things that might be onboard the boat. The drill encourages skippers to carry certain types of items to plug leaks long enough for a pump to arrive from the U.S. Coast Guard or limp back to port.

Petersen, who also is an NWIFC marine resource specialist, has been teaching Alaska Marine Safety Education Association (AMSEA) drill classes for the last three years.

“On the Washington coast, if you are going to be fishing beyond three miles, the U.S. Coast Guard requires at least one person on the fishing vessel to take the course and be certified,” Petersen said. Frequently, all crew members take the class, which is best because they can practice working together to deploy the emergency raft, use flares and retrieve a person overboard.

The course also covers the use of a pump provided by the U.S. Coast Guard when responding to a flooding event, how to use ordinary items on the boat to stop leaks and how to put out fires. They practice getting into survival suits within a minute, and safely getting into the life raft.

Basic first aid also is covered, tailored to marine emergencies where someone might need to be stabilized for a period of time.

Classes often are either free or subsidized to commercial fishermen thanks to grants from Washington Sea Grant and AMSEA. Demonstration support is provided by the U.S. Coast Guard. Petersen averages five classes a year.

“With COVID restrictions, we can schedule classes with as few as five people, but hope to be back to an average of 10 as health and safety allow,” Petersen said.

Joe Petersen, marine safety instructor, bobs in the water at the Quileute Tribe’s marina during an overboard simulation. Photos: D. Preston