The Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) recently reported that a missing drain plug ultimately lead to the 2014 sinking of a Western Newfoundland fishing vessel, which claimed the life of one of the crew members.
On June 26, 2014, the small fishing vessel Sea Serpent 25 took on water and capsized during fishing operations off Little Port Head on the west coast of Newfoundland. No distress call was made. The overturned vessel was sighted three hours later by a patrolling Department of Fisheries and Oceans vessel. Three crew members were rescued and one deceased crew member, 68-year-old Bernard Blanchard of Gillams, was recovered.
The TSB investigation determined that the vessel began taking on water in slight sea conditions, most likely due to water entering the vessel through the drain hole because the plug had not been inserted, or had not been inserted properly.
On the day of the incident, the TSB reported the crew was hauling crab pots. A small quantity of water accumulated on board while hauling the first string of traps, so one of the crew members removed the plug from the drain hole to drain the water.
As was normal practice, the captain applied enough power to get the vessel on a plane so that the water would drain as they proceeded toward the second string. To re-insert the plug, the metal handle must be snapped down in order to expand the rubber, create a watertight seal and lock the plug in place. This required physically getting on hands and knees and reaching aft to where the plug was located.
During the resetting of the crab pots, around 9 a.m., one of the crew members noticed that there was a considerable amount of water on board and alerted the others. The crew began bailing out the water with a 20-litre bucket, but there was too much water for this to be effective. The crew then pushed the remaining traps stacked on the starboard side overboard, followed by the ones on the port side.
As the vessel, which had more than 300 kilograms of crab onboard, continued to settle lower in the water, the outboard engines stalled and all power and manoeuvrability was lost. About a minute later, the stern was under water and the vessel capsized to starboard. There was no opportunity to make a distress call.
Following the capsizing, the captain and two of the crew members managed to put on PFDs that had been hanging on the port side of the deckhouse and then hung onto the capsized vessel. The third crew member, however, was unable to put on a PFD and treaded water until he could grab onto a 20-litre gas can and the 20-litre gas tank for the outboards that had floated to the surface. As he held on to the containers, he drifted away from the overturned vessel, which was held in position by the crab gear.
One hour later, one of the crew members hanging onto the capsized vessel was checked for signs of life by the master and was found unresponsive. The master secured him to the vessel with some rope. At Noon, the overturned vessel was inadvertently discovered by two Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) officers who were patrolling the area. The DFO officers recovered two survivors and then continued the search for the third crew member, who had drifted out of sight. He was rescued from the water, still holding onto the containers, at around 12:30. The deceased crew member was recovered by the Canadian Coast Guard cutter (CCGC) Cape Fox at 14:05.
Following the recovery, the CCGC Cape Fox towed the overturned vessel to Lark Harbour, arriving at 17:40. The surviving crew members were released after being transported to shore by the DFO patrol vessel and cleared by medical personnel. The cause of death for the deceased crew member was determined to be drowning.