SAFE-BOAT SMART-BOAT: PFDs, grappling with fishing’s ‘safety culture’

by Fred Mattera – 

During safety training sessions in December and January each year, I break out the “Cold Water Boot Camp USA” DVD.  It’s a great tool for reviewing coldwater safety with fishermen now that the water temperature is a frigid 45°F or less.

In the video, selected volunteers agree to immerse themselves in 45°F water without any means of flotation and let everyone see their reactions, which vary from person to person.  This video never fails to produce the “WOW” factor, and usually a fisherman will share his or her man-overboard story and how lucky they feel to have survived.



A qualified Coast Guard-approved marine drill instructor, Fred Mattera of Point Judith, RI is the owner/president of North East Safety Training Co. (NESTCo), which conducts fishing vessel drills and inspections and basic safety training workshops.
A commercial fisherman for 40 years, Mattera is a member of the Commercial Fishing Safety Advisory Committee to the Coast Guard, and, since 1998, has been president of the Point Club, a fishing vessel mutual insurance group. He also has served on the board of directors for Sunderland Marine Mutual Insurance Co., the principal underwriter for the Point Club and more than 2,000 US fishing vessels, since 1998.

So, now that I have a captive audience, it is up to me to convince these fishermen that wearing a PFD will save their life.  I have all but bought these personal flotation devices for a lot of crewmen, and I often let fishermen borrow my PFDs so they can judge the comfort factor for themselves.

Five to seven years ago, my success rate in convincing these people to buy their own PFDs was about one out of 25 fishermen.  In the last year, that has improved to around one out of 10.  And, even more encouragingly, over the last six weeks, one out of five fishermen has purchased a PFD.  Yeah, baby steps, but definitely an improvement.

After viewing the Cold Water Boot Camp DVD, I usually discuss an anecdotal story of a man-overboard incident.  Most recently, the discussion has revolved around the miraculous account of John Aldridge, the Montauk, NY fisherman who survived a 12-hour man-overboard incident this past summer.

John was intuitive and used his boots under his arms for flotation.  He set a goal of making it to sunrise, knowing he was in an area surrounded by lobster gear, and he was able to cut a poly ball off the end of a trawl for additional flotation.

He watched aircraft fly close to him and fishing and Coast Guard vessels steam by him for hours.  Eventually, he was able to retrieve another poly ball and, using the line, tied the two balls together to create a sling seat where he waited, praying for rescue.  These amazing accomplishments all demonstrated John’s incredible will to live.

On Jan. 2, Paul Tough, a journalist for The New York Times, published an outstanding story describing the harrowing details of John’s incredible survival and rescue.  This is a must-read piece for any mariner.



Trying to die?

Here is where the feel-good story changes course, prompted by an article written by former Coast Guard rescue swimmer Mario Vittone in response to The Times piece and published on Jan. 3 in the online publication gCaptain Maritime and Offshore News.

In his article, which was titled “Trying Very Hard To Die:  The Preventable Disease in Commercial Fishing,” Mario offers this provocative statement.

“I’m beginning to think there is a disease that is caught early in a working fisherman’s life.  It’s as if there is something in the scales of fish that wants to pay them back, something that gets under their skin.  Once in their blood, it affects the brain and makes them more likely to die than any other group of professional mariners.  It makes them believe that they are different, that fishing is more dangerous than every other job out there and nothing can be done about it.” 

Now, that struck a chord with me.  How many times have I heard fishermen say something to the effect of, “Oh well.  That’s fishing.  Deal with it.”  I admit that, for most of my fishing career, I fell into the same mindset, “the inescapable risk of the job.”

Mario has met many fishermen in the back of a rescue helicopter, and his sense is that this is their belief – that the dangers of being at sea are greater for them than for anyone else who goes to sea and that those dangers are inescapable.  Mario refers to it as
“CFD – Commercial Fishing Disease.”

I describe it as, “It’s never going to happen to me.”

Along with Mario, I, too, am elated that John Aldridge survived.  But we can learn a lot from his mistakes, detailed in both articles, that could prevent this kind of mishap from happening to other fishermen.  Here goes.

•  John was awake for 22 hours straight at the time of the incident.

•  He was working on deck alone in the middle of the night with the autopilot engaged.

•  Two members of his crew were asleep below.

•  He was supposed to wake a crewman to relieve his watch but, instead, kept working.

•  There apparently was no bridge alarm to warn the crew that whoever was supposed to be on watch had fallen asleep or gone missing.  And, of course …

•  John wasn’t wearing a PFD.

All of these factors are what safety trainers tell people not to do when they are on watch.  I have to ask anyone else who works like this two questions:  “Are you trying to fall overboard without being noticed?   Is this inescapable danger?”

No.  This is poor judgment.

National Fisherman Editor Jessica Hathaway recently responded to these two articles in an editorial titled “Sanctifying safety at sea.”  She suggested that Mario and others shouldn’t compare fishermen to other mariners or dismiss them as cavalier and ignorant because of the risks they take.

I am inclined to disagree with her.  Mario’s article wasn’t only about the comparison of fishermen to other mariners.  It also was his response to the attitude that “It’s too difficult to work in a PFD,” something I’ve heard fishermen say.  He points out that other mariners perform arduous work while wearing PFDs.

Jessica also suggests that the cost of PFDs make them economically difficult for some fishermen to purchase.  But I can quote those who have fallen overboard in cold water, and this is what they say: “You’re not going to be thinking about the cost of the PFD.  You’re just going to be happy you’re wearing it.”

And here’s another thing.  I have been on numerous vessels where owners have made the investment and stocked up on all types of PFDs and they are just hanging on hooks, jammed into a locker, or tucked into a shelf.  Some of these PFDs are brand new or hardly used.  It’s not the cost.  It’s an attitude – Commercial Fishing Disease.

It takes time to change the safety culture.  Yes, I know that.  Is the answer to shove more regulations down our throats?  No.

But it is time to recognize the cold, hard facts.  We all need to work together to educate, to train, and to foster a major change in attitude about wearing PFDs.

Mario, myself, and others have witnessed tragedies at sea, the loss of lives.  It changes you.  Not until you have looked into the eyes of a victim’s mother, father, sister, brother, wife, and children and see the pain and anguish do you realize that we need to do better.

Jessica put it this way:  “If we want to continue the forward momentum of safety at sea, we have to make it easier for fishermen to understand the risk of not using safety gear and the benefit of investing in it.”

On this point, we agree.

Fred Mattera



CFN_2_14coverRead the rest and much, much more in the February issue of Commercial Fisheries News.

Read online immediately and download for future reference.