Commercial fishing is one of the most dangerous professions in America. Consider this statistic: in the ten years from 2000 to 2010, 170 commercial fishermen in the U.S. lost their lives by falling overboard. To help reduce the number of fatalities in our region, a safety and survival training program is going on, designed to teach fishermen what to do during emergencies on their vessels.
It’s a slightly comical sight: A group of 7 or 8 fishermen, all clad head-to-toe in bright red survival suits. They vaguely resemble Gumby costumes as they trudge down a gangway onto a dock at the Sandwich Marina. One by one, they step up to instructor Dan Collier. After last minute instructions, they step off the dock and into the frigid water, then paddle backwards and clamber inside an inflatable raft floating nearby. It’s what they’d have to do in the real world if their boat were on fire or sinking. But it’s not easy. Eventually, fisherman Bill Cole from Waterford, Connecticut climbs out of the water.
“Got a little nervous at first, but I just kinda held my breath and jumped in,” said Cole. “Once I started moving around, it wasn’t that bad.”
The exercise is one component of a day-long safety and survival training course for commercial fishermen sponsored by the Burlington, Massachusetts–based Fishing Partnership. The free program covers everything from fire safety to emergency gear to man-overboard recovery. Instructor Dan Collier said it’s a reality check for the participants.
“When we first started this, most people had never taken a survival suit out of a bag…didn’t know what it is…didn’t know what it did,” Collier said. “So people are taking their safety seriously, and the deaths annually are starting to show that this course is helping out New England.”
On a recent day, about 30 fishermen rotate in groups between six training “modules” on the grounds of the Coast Guard Canal Station in Sandwich.
Ed Dennehy is Director of Safety Training for the Fishing Partnership. He said 3,200 fishermen have gone through the program since it started ten years ago.
“They certainly come away with a greater knowledge of what the problems and issues are, and what the consequences are,” said Dennehy.
At least, the fishermen who’ve shown up today do…but there are many others who, for whatever reason, choose not to participate in the training. But Fishing Partnership Vice President Andra Athos said that’s slowly beginning to change.
“It used to be a culture of ‘When it’s my time, it’s my time, and I’ll go down with my ship,’” Anthos said. “And now, people are saying ‘Well, maybe I actually don’t have to go down with my ship…maybe I can take some safety precautions and put those to use instead.’”
Course instructors include ex-Coast Guard personnel and fishing boat captains, many who’ve lost friends at sea.
“Sometimes we’ll train, and then the next week we’ll hear about somebody who put their techniques to use and their life was saved. And there’s just nothing like that feeling,” said Anthos.
Those who complete the one-day course can also train to be Drill Conductors, which allows them to conduct federally-required safety drills aboard their own vessels.