By Tina Comeau and Greg Bennett
FOR THE SOU’WESTER
A Shelburne County, Nova Scotia, deckhand who fell overboard near Cape Sable Island, N.S. last year was not wearing any safety equipment, says a Transportation Safety Board (TSB) report into the incident.
The May 3, 2011, incident happened early in the morning when 33-year-old deckhand Ward Wickens, of Bear Point was lost overboard from the fishing vessel Silver Angel. His body was never recovered.
The fisherman fell overboard while retrieving a paravane stabilizer. The captain, the only other person on board, made several unsuccessful attempts to rescue the crewmember.
After having offloaded a catch of silver hake in East Jeddore, N.S., on the morning of May 2, the fishing vessel was on its way to East Pubnico, Yarmouth County, with just a captain and a deckhand on board. Another deckhand was driving to East Pubnico by car. In East Pubnico, the fishing vessel was to undergo a standard Transport Canada inspection.
While en route and just before midnight, the captain and deckhand deployed the paravane stabilizers as the northeast wind had increased and the vessel was rolling.
Around 4:50 a.m. on May 3, the deckhand started retrieving the paravane stabilizers. During this process, states the TSB report, the captain lost sight of the deckhand. He eventually spotted the man in the water about three to five metres off the vessel’s side. The deckhand was calling out to the captain.
The captain quickly retrieved a gaff and attempted to reach the man with it, the report says. Unable to reach him, the captain grabbed a life-ring and threw the line towards the deckhand. But it didn’t reach him. He then ran to get a rope, “…but by the time he reached the stern he could no longer see the deckhand,” the TSB report says.
The captain then ran to the wheelhouse and sent out a distress signal.
Approximately 25 fishing vessels, two coast guard cutters and a coast guard auxiliary vessel responded to the mayday call. A Cormorant helicopter from 14 Wing Greenwood also conducted searches for the missing man. The report notes that the captain was alone and that the deckhand was not wearing a safety harness or PFD reduced his chances of survival and rescue.
At the time seas were three metres and visibility was poor due to fog and darkness.
As for how the deckhand fell overboard, the report says the investigation was unable to determine with certainty what caused him to fall into the water. But it concludes the deckhand probably fell from the vessel's gunwale while attempting to retrieve the starboard paravane pick-up rope, losing his footing and/or handhold as the vessel rolled in the seas.
The report says the retrieval arrangement for paravane stabilizers on the Silver Angel increased the risk of falling overboard since it didn’t preclude a crewmember from walking along the gunwale. The deckhand, however, says the report, “worked in the fishing industry most of his life, and he was known for his agility when moving around the vessel, including his practice of walking along the gunwale to retrieve the starboard paravane. Other crew members perceived this skill to be an asset.”
But crewmembers, the report says, may not fully assess the dangers of a behaviour when they perceive the risk to be low, particularly when they have successfully performed the same task many times in the past.
Although its health and safety policy remains the same, since the accident the East Pubnico-based fishing company that owns the vessel has taken other safety actions, which include providing water-activated inflatable PFD vests for each crewmember on its vessels and the issuing of a directive for all crew members to wear a PFD when working on board its vessels. A captain and a crewmember were added to the safety committee under the company's health and safety program. They have been given the responsibility of reporting any safety concerns that they identify to the committee on a monthly basis.
The company has also been reviewing procedures to retrieve a person overboard from the water and to get the crewmember safely back on board the vessel. This includes a modified aluminum ladder that rests on the gunwale and extends several feet into the water.
From 2000 to 2011, the Transportation Safety Board report notes that 47 out of a total of 153 fishing-related deaths in Canada happened by falling overboard, making it the second highest cause of accidental deaths in the fishing industry.