UW News

March 7, 2014

Lifesaving milestone for Washington’s fishing industry

Washington Sea Grant

Washington Sea Grant based at the University of Washington has passed a lifesaving milestone: its field agents conducted their 100th Coast Guard-certified Safety at Sea class for tribal and commercial fishers, teaching them how to survive the mishaps and disasters that have claimed hundreds of lives in Washington’s turbulent waters.

Fittingly enough, this two-day class was held as rain poured and the wind raged up to 40 miles per hour. Even more fittingly, it was held at the Makah Tribal Reservation at Neah Bay, at the far corner of the Olympic Peninsula, site of one of the safety program’s most conspicuous successes. In 2012 three Makah fishermen survived a nighttime crash by following the mayday and evacuation procedures they’d learned in a Sea Grant class just one month earlier.

Two simmers in survival suits in water trying to climb into opening of covered life raft

Students wearing survival suits climb into a covered life raft during a drill.E Olsson/Washington Sea Grant

As Makah fisherman Bruce Gonzales says, “It ain’t no joke out on the water. Our emergency room is four, five hours away. If you want to survive, you got to take the class.” Last week he took the Sea Grant safety class for the fourth time; he’s also gotten at-sea first aid and CPR certification.

Federal regulations merely require that skippers get the training, but many deckhands, even entire crews, now sign up. “You can’t just depend on your captain to know it,” says Gonzales. “If something goes wrong, he’s going to be busy.

“There’s a lot of people that think they know it all, but you got to do a refresher course every couple years,” Gonzales adds. “You get a new guy, he thinks he knows everything, but then you ask him, ‘Where are the flares? Where’s the life raft? Where’s the EPIRB [electronic position indicating radio beacon, a marker similar to a GPS signal]? Where’s your survival suit? Where’s the bilge pump, where’s the water coming in? They say, ‘Man, I didn’t know about that!'”

Last week’s 12 students had to locate all these essentials and more onboard, under conditions reproducing the panic and uncertainty of real at-sea emergencies. After classroom preparation they got hands-on practice firing flares, using fire extinguishers and a dewatering pump, and keeping a damaged boat afloat at the local Coast Guard station.

At the harbor they rescued a man overboard, played by Sea Grant marine field agent Steve Harbell, and treated him for hypothermia while coordinating by radio with the Coast Guard played by Sea Grant oil-spill specialist Eric Olsson. They then put out a simulated galley fire, with a smoke machine driving home the importance of staying low to avoid toxic fumes and heat.

Then came the biggest test, not just hands-on but body-in.

The captain called mayday and the crew had to speedily don survival suits and jump into the 44-degree water, which can kill an unprotected swimmer in as little as 15 minutes. As the wind howled, they locked together in a swimming chain and paddled to a life raft that had floated away, clambered aboard, checked for injuries, located emergency supplies and contemplated in the margin of safety these measures would confer in a real crisis.

Washington Sea Grant, the marine research and education program funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and housed in UW’s College of the Environment, has instructed more than 2,000 students in the latest safety and life-saving techniques during the past two decades. For the millions who venture no farther out to sea than the local seafood counter, this training provides more assurance that the salmon, crab, sablefish and other delicacies won’t come at the cost of human tragedy.