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Connecticut’s Commercial Fishermen Prepare for Dangers of the High Sea

May 10, 2016

About two dozen fishermen braced themselves against a cold ocean wind one recent day for safety training.

From floods to fires --  burst pipes to a man overboard, when something goes wrong on a commercial fishing vessel -- crew members at sea need to act fast. But how do they prepare? 

I recently visited an emergency training session to learn more. 

As I stood on a dock in Groton with Alex Taylor, the captain of a fishing boat out of New London, he took a drag off a cigarette, looked out at the ocean, and recalled how his boat's engine caught fire a few months back.

"I couldn't get to the fire to put it out," he said. "So I got everybody on the back deck. Got the life raft down. Tried to go back in to get our immersion suits, but the fire was too much. [I] couldn't get to the radio to call a Mayday -- so we used a cell phone, luckily we were close enough to shore."

As the fire burned, Taylor said he tossed a life raft in the water, and had his two crew mates jump in. He did a few more things to secure the boat, then hopped into the life raft. All he could do then, he said, was wait.

"It was about 45 minutes for the Coast Guard to come and get us," Taylor said. "Great response, but lost the boat. Couldn't salvage it. It sank."

No one was hurt. Taylor said no one even panicked -- thanks, in part, to safety training -- like the class he was taking at Avery Point in Groton.

"You don't want them panicking in a real life situation," said Edward Dennehy, director of safety training for Fishing Partnership Support Services, a non-profit out of Massachusetts. He travels all over New England providing no-cost training to fishermen. "We don't care where they're from. If they show up -- we teach 'em," Dennehy said. 

About two dozen fishermen braced themselves against a cold ocean wind one recent day. An overcast sky tossed gray light onto the back deck of a small lobster boat as captains and mates learned how to run safety drills on boats.

They exercises were aimed at teaching crew how to put out a fire or patch holes, or how to respond when someone goes overboard, or a boat starts taking on water in the open ocean.

"How to make a Mayday is a very simple task, but people don't know how to do it, unless the skipper of the boat is making that new person actually practice doing that," Dennehy said.

The idea is fishermen will take this knowledge back to their boats, and incorporate the ideas into monthly safety drills required by the federal government.

The program is put on locally in conjunction with the Coast Guard, UConn, and Connecticut Sea Grant.

There's classroom work for fishermen, but Dennehy said he tries to make a lot of the training hands-on. "Get the guys out there, let them light off the flares -- let them actually put out a fire, let them actually plug a hole. Put the suits on. Get in the water," he said.

Alex Taylor, the fishing boat captain, said communicating safety to new fishermen he works with is important, especially in an industry the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranks one of the most hazardous jobs in the United States.

"You can lose fingers -- slip, fall, hurt yourself," he said. "Because no matter what, something will go wrong at some point of your fishing career. It's the inevitable."

Taylor said he'll be that much better prepared after the training to return to his crew and teach them how to react when something does go wrong on the waters off Connecticut's coast.