The Maine Fishermen’s Forum kicks off Thursday in Rockport and I have a simple but serious message for Maine fishermen: Wear a lifejacket. As we in the Coast Guard commonly observe, the majority of commercial fishermen do not wear lifejackets, and believe it or not, wearing one is not required by federal law.
I recall a great quote from the late Molly Benjamin, a Cape Cod Times fishing columnist and well-known voice for the New England fishing community. In one of her articles on a marine casualty, she wrote, “the Sea is not the home element of humans; we visit at our own risk.”
Not wearing a lifejacket while fishing is the equivalent of driving down the most dangerous road in Maine, at high speed, with your seatbelt in the trunk of your car.
The frustrating thing is fishermen know the hazards but continue to flout the lifejacket’s indisputable life-saving value.
Over eight days in January we tragically lost three fishermen in Maine. David Downes died after falling overboard from the Tara Lynn II and drowned just feet from the vessel’s mooring in Portland. Fifty miles offshore, Joe Nickerson and Christopher Pinkham drowned when their vessel, the Hayley Ann, sank and both men were thrown into near freezing seas.
In Downes’ case, sudden immersion in 42-degree water was insurmountable despite rescue attempts by his captain and a nearby Coast Guard crew in the minutes immediately following his fall overboard. He was positioned to be easily rescued, yet the sudden and severe impacts of cold water immersion were too much.
The physiological impacts of cold water shock make breathing uncontrollable, which induces swallowing water and causes drowning. Wearing a lifejacket greatly reduces this reaction because buoyancy from the jacket keeps a person’s head higher in relation to the water thus facilitating more controlled breathing and minimizing the amount of water a person swallows. When you consider that cold water shock can occur in water colder than 68 degrees Fahrenheit, and that Maine waters only reach that temperature during a brief peak in summer, it seems to me that wearing a lifejacket while fishing at sea is a no-brainer.
In almost all other instances, help in the form of Coast Guard rescue helicopters or boats won’t arrive on-scene as quickly. In a best case scenario, like the Hayley Ann case, we may have planes, helicopters and boats patrolling in the region. Even with these favorable circumstances, it still took 90 minutes from the time the emergency alert activated until a Coast Guard rescue swimmer arrived at the Hayley Ann’s location. While Coast Guard rescue units raced to their location, Nickerson and Pinkham faced 38-degree ocean water and 8-foot waves crashed around them. With the vessel almost completely underwater, Hayley Ann’s federally required life-raft deployed and was still tethered to the vessel when Coast Guard units arrived. Sadly, neither Nickerson nor Pinkham made it to the liferaft. Had they been wearing lifejackets they may have had a chance, without them survival was impossible.
Today’s technology, like satellite emergency beacons and VHF radio distress alerts, are designed to provide fishermen a survival advantage in the unforgiving maritime element. But fishermen must be wary of a false sense of security; technology does not provide flotation nor prevent cold water shock. Years ago, lifejackets were more commonly referred to as life-preservers. It may sound antiquated now, but that’s precisely what rescuers need fishermen to do: preserve your life until we can get to you.
Brian LeFebvre serves as the federal captain of the Port for Maine and is the sector commander of Coast Guard Sector Northern New England based in South Portland.