Sinking raises safety issues on bilge alarms

The failure of engine cooling system pipework is one of the most common causes of flooding on small fishing vessels
The failure of engine cooling system pipework is one of the most common causes of flooding on small fishing vessels

In its latest Safety Digest, the UK MAIB provides learnings about an 8.13m fibreglass fishing vessel that was engaged in picking up its fleets of creels when it began to take on water and subsequently sank. The skipper, who was working alone, managed to deploy the boat’s liferaft and climb into it as the boat was sinking and was later rescued without injuries.

The incident
The skipper went out to sea shortly after daybreak to recover his two fleets of creels. The weather was good. As soon as he arrived at the fishing grounds, he hauled in the first fleet of creels and stowed it on the aft end of the deck. He then headed at speed toward the second fleet of creels.

During the transit, the skipper noticed smoke in the wheelhouse and, looking around, saw that it was coming from the engine hatch. The skipper initially thought that the boat was on fire, so prepared the boat’s fire extinguisher ready to use. As he slowed the boat down in preparation for opening the hatch, the boat’s bilge alarm sounded. Once the boat was stopped, the skipper slowly opened the hatch, but saw no flames.

When he opened it fully, the smoke quickly cleared and the skipper saw water flooding in from around the engine’s cooling system. He immediately started the boat’s two bilge pumps, but soon observed that they were not keeping pace with the inflow of water. The skipper went back to the wheelhouse and made a “Mayday” call on VHF radio channel 16. He told the coastguard that his boat was sinking and gave them his position.

The skipper’s “Mayday” call alerted other vessels in the immediate vicinity to the unfolding distress situation, and those nearby offered their assistance. Meanwhile, the skipper donned his lifejacket and deployed the vessel’s liferaft. Deciding that his boat could not be saved, the skipper climbed into the liferaft and cast it adrift.

A passenger ferry, alerted by the “Mayday” call and tasked by the coastguard, diverted to the scene and launched its fast recue craft. The ferry’s rescue boat crew recovered the skipper from his liferaft and took him back to the ferry, where his condition was assessed. Another nearby fishing vessel picked up the liferaft and stood by the sinking boat until it sank a few minutes later.

Probable Cause
Analysis of the events identified that the fast planing vessel, when underway with a fleet of creels stowed at the aft end of the deck, adopted a stern trim. The boat had a single bilge alarm that was mounted under the engine toward the forward end of the engine space. When the boat started flooding, the inflow of water accumulated toward the aft end of the space because the boat had a stern trim. The floodwater came into contact with the engine exhaust and/or electrical circuits, causing smoke to be generated before activating the bilge alarm. As the boat slowed down and came more onto an even keel, the water flowed forward and set off the alarm. The volume of water inflow and the difficulty of access prevented the skipper from shutting the hull valve.

Lessons Learned
1. The skipper’s “Mayday” call to the coastguard, the availability of his lifejacket and his ability to don it quickly, and the correct operation of the liferaft when needed, demonstrated that the skipper knew the boat, looked after the equipment, and was practised in what to do. Every crew member should be fully aware of where the emergency equipment is, how to use it and, because it has been inspected and maintained properly, be confident that it is going to work.

2. Consideration should be given to the location and number of bilge alarms fitted on any fishing vessel. Flooding can be rapid and bilge alarms are critical in providing an early warning of problems in spaces that are not regularly visited. In this case, it was normal for the vessel to have a significant stern trim when underway, but not when alongside or drifting. The bilge alarm worked as it should, but consideration to its placement had not included the attitude of the boat when underway. Had a bilge alarm been fitted further aft, the skipper would have had an earlier warning of problems. He could then have had more time to implement further action that could possibly have saved the boat. It is recommended that all skippers take a moment to consider the number and location of their bilge alarms.

3. Lone working on small boats is not uncommon, particularly on board potters. The skipper did not wear a PFD routinely while working on deck. He considered them to be a snag hazard and interfered with his work. However, time and time again the MAIB has investigated fatalities on fishing boats that could have been prevented through the routine wearing of a PFD while working on deck.

4. The failure of engine cooling system pipework is one of the most common causes of flooding on small fishing vessels. The quick closure of hull valves will stop the flooding and therefore prevent serious damage or loss of the vessel. Consideration should be given to the provision of a remote means of closing hull valves.

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