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Caledonian: The fatal consequences of lost stability

By Glenn Budden,
Senior Investigator – Marine, Fishing Vessels
Transportation Safety Board of Canada

This article first appeared in the January 2017 edition of Western Mariner magazine.

On the afternoon of September 5, 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 four crew on board, why did only one survive?

The second question is easier to answer; the sole survivor was the only one wearing a personal flotation device, or PFD. And while the industry is starting to make a 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.

As to the capsizing, the TSB's investigationFootnote 1 revealed that several factors contributed to a loss of the vessel's stability, the biggest being the operating practices—such as storing fuel in the aft tanks rather than the centre ones—and a nearly 20 percent increase in the vessel's lightweight since its last stability assessment in 1976. On the day of the occurrence, these factors meant the vessel floated almost half a metre lower in the water and its stern trim was increased.

As a result, what was to be the last tow of the trip ended in tragedy: unaware that the vessel's safe operating limits had changed over the years, or that the operating practices were putting themselves and the vessel at risk, the crew split the tow into two bags, loading the entire first bag into the centre port hold. This gave the vessel a port list, which increased after the second bag came on board. Water began to ship on deck and, despite an attempt to correct the list by implementing a starboard course alteration, the vessel capsized within a couple of minutes.

During the capsizing, two of the crew sustained fatal injuries. Afterward, the master and the mate who was wearing a PFD were able to climb onto the overturned hull, where they clung until it sunk some six hours later, at which point the vessel's liferaft 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 has issued five recommendations. Two of these address the issue of personal flotation devices: the TSB wants crews on fishing vessels to wear suitable PFDs at all times while on deck, and for Transport Canada and WorkSafeBC, the provincial regulator responsible for workplace safety, to develop ways to confirm that fishermen are complying.

The other three recommendations deal with vessel stability and the adequacy of the information available to the crew to ensure they operate within a vessel's safe operating limits. Because even before adding fuel, water, gear and supplies for the trip—and without having undergone any major modifications—the Caledonian was over 50 tons heavier on the day of the occurrence than when its stability was assessed almost 40 years earlier. This kind of “weight creep” happens to most older vessels: spare gear and equipment accumulate, insulating material becomes water logged, and paint builds up. Yes, the Caledonian had undergone a stability assessment and had a stability booklet; that, however, was decades earlier, and by the day of the accident the information in the booklet was no longer current, nor understandable, and thus inadequate for use by the crew in determining safe operating limits.

For this reason, it's important that fishing vessels that have already had a stability assessment—large ones like the Caledonian, along with many smaller ones under 24 metres—keep that information up to date, and that it be presented in an easily understood format. Those vessels not currently required to undergo an assessment also need to have one, though in a manner appropriate to their size and operation.

Making sure crews have the stability information they need doesn't need to be complicated, either. The maximum operating waterline, for instance, could be indicated via a simple line on the hull; maximum permitted loads, meanwhile, 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.

Fishermen, however, don't need to wait for regulations in order to make their operations safer. Simple steps such as wearing a PFD, learning what their vessel's safe operating limits are, and staying within them, can save lives. So why not prepare… to stay alive?