Wearing a personal flotation device might have made the difference between life and death in a fatal fishing accident last July in the waters off Gros Morne National Park, says a new report by the Transportation Safety Board that details the circumstances and carries a stern safety warning.
The report, released Monday, examines the sinking of a small fishing boat that set off from Sally's Cove in the early hours of July 28 to haul up halibut long lines on a partly cloudy, slightly windy day. As it puttered offshore under the power of its two outboard motors, the 21-foot open vessel had two fish totes and two men aboard.
The men had one crucial difference when, hours later at around 2 p.m., a large wave swamped the stern: the crew member was wearing a PFD, while the master, 49-year-old Todd McLean of Green Island Cove, at the stern, was not.
The boat, carrying up to 635 kilograms of fish on board, quickly sank, and the men grabbed at floating debris. The crew member grabbed a gasoline container, while McLean stuck his wrist through a rubber tie-down strap, attaching himself to the lid of one of the fish totes.
The men were within cell service, and the crew member tried to call for help, but his cellphone was flooded from being underwater. The ocean gradually separated the two, and they lost sight of each other.
Twenty hours later, following an all-night search on land and sea — involving two helicopters, four airplanes and three Canadian Coast Guard vessels — a Coast Guard lifeboat came across the crew member, alive and alert around 10:30 a.m.
Twenty minutes later, the boat found McLean, unresponsive. They were both taken to the hospital in Norris Point, where McLean was declared dead. He left behind a wife, and two daughters.
Safety equipment lacking: TSB
In the report, the TSB noted that floatation devices must be worn at all times for open vessels on voyages such as the one the unnamed boat embarked upon that July morning, if there are no life-jackets on board.
McLean did have a PFD in the boat but, the report, said, "was not wearing it at the time of the occurrence and did not have time to don it when the vessel sank rapidly."
PFDs allow for greater movement while working than traditional life-jackets, but the report noted, "Many fish harvesters are resistant to wearing them, citing issues such as discomfort, the risk of entanglement, and the perception that it is not practical or normal to use them."
The report urged fish harvesters to change widespread attitudes to avoid future tragedies.
"The TSB continues to see PFDs not being worn by crews in fatal fishing vessel occurrences such as this one," the report said, adding they can increase survival rates until help arrives.
"Fish harvesters need to take responsibility for their own safety and the safety of their crews by ensuring that PFDs are worn when working on board their vessels."
The TSB report also said, against regulations, the boat did not have the required combination of safety gear aboard, such as a life raft or recovery boat. It also had no emergency radio beacon device, known as an EPIRB, that can broadcast a signal to search and rescue crews, although due to the boat's size and the men's cellphones, the boat was not required to have one on board.
"Previous TSB investigations have found that carrying an EPIRB can contribute to saving crew members' lives," the report said.
Thirty-four people died in 15 incidents involving small fishing vessels that were where when not equipped with such radio devices in the decade prior to the Sally's Cove accident, the report said.
That included the September 2016 sinking of the fishing vessel Pop's Pride, four men — representing three generations of a single family — lost their lives off Cape Spear. That boat had no EPIRB and no safety equipment was ever found in the aftermath.
The TSB report on the Sally's Cove sinking investigated it with safety in mind, and the report is not meant for legal or criminal proceedings.