Accident report highlights safety issues for single-handed skippers

An accident which caused the death of a fisherman who drowned after being dragged from the vessel he was single-handedly operating could been avoided, a report has declared.

Findings from the Marine Accident Investigation Branch show Neil Smith might have been saved if he had been wearing a personal flotation device, or lifejacket, on board his small creel boat the Breadwinner early this year.

Mr Smith was thought to have been pulled overboard when he became entangled in ropes after shooting 70 prawn creels on 22nd January.

The accident happened five miles east of Bressay and the vessel was found the following day on Grif Skerry near Whalsay. But it was another eight days before Mr Smith’s body was eventually found entangled in a leader of creels.

The report states the 54-year-old could have cut himself free from the ropes he had become entangled in had he been carrying a knife when the accident took place.

It says the alarm could have been raised much sooner if the vessel had been fitted with a personal locater beacon and a remote engine cut-out device.

The report states: “Once snared by the back rope, Mr Smith’s best chance of survival would have been to cut the rope pulling him overboard. This would have required to have had a readily available knife on his person, or knives placed in strategic positions on board.

“Had he been able to free himself from the rope after going overboard, his survival time would have been limited since he was not wearing a PFD to keep his head above water, or a PLB capable of alerting rescue authorities and enabling them to find him.

Breadwinner was making way at over three knots, so it would have been almost impossible for anyone in the water to catch up with the vessel and get back on board. There are remote engine cut-out devices on the market which have the ability to stop engines, either manually or when the control unit is taken beyond a predetermined distance.

“Fitting and using such a device would improve the safety of all single-handed vessels, not only fishing boats.

“The accident happened during a normal shooting operation, which the skipper had carried out routinely for many years. The creels were laid using a ‘self-shooting’ system, which obviated the need for anyone to be on deck during the entire shooting process.

However, there were no control measures on Breadwinner to separate crew members from the fishing gear during shooting operations if it became necessary for someone to leave the protection afforded by the wheelhouse.”

The report says Mr Smith had been a fisherman all his life and was a highly-respected figure within the fishing community. Winds were blowing at force five to six and the weather and the sea state at the time meant the Breadwinner was close to her operating limit.

The report adds that none of the operational safety guidelines offer advice for single-handed opera­tions. It highlights a need to provide effective advice for fisher­men who operate without the aid of a crew.


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