Life in Oregon’s fishing and crabbing industries is hard and risky; crabbing, in particular, is among the most dangerous jobs in the nation.
So the U.S. Coast Guard is working with skippers like Kelly Barnett to increase safety and awareness.
Barnett captains the “Good Intentions,” which is docked at the coastal town of Garibaldi. He’s spent his whole life in the fishing industry, mainly buying and selling fish on the shore.
But last year, he decided he wanted to catch his own product. So he bought a boat and decided he ought to attend the Coast Guard’s survival training.
“I want to be safer on the line,” he said. “I want to know everything I can.”
The Coast Guard tells commercial captains to run drills once a month to make sure their crews are well-versed in how to abandon ship, fight onboard fires and quickly don bright red survival suits.
As part of the class, instructors taught Barnett what to do if he hit another fishing vessel in the fog.
Then they made him respond to a mock accident: You’ve just collided with another boat. Respond.
“There’s a man in the water! Somebody get an eye on him! Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!” he barked on the radio.
Barnett was standing at the controls of his boat as Coast Guard Auxiliary Officer Ron Hilburger, pretending to be on the other end of the radio, peppered him with questions.
“What’s the status of your vessel?”
“We have sustained damage ourselves. We are probably taking on water. I say, ‘We’re taking on water,’” Barnett shouted. “We’ve had a collision. We’re at the entrance to the Tillamook Bay Bar. We have him on board; we need medical attention.”
At the back of the boat, deckhands simulated the accident by dragging Coast Guard instructor Dan Cary off the dock and onto the boat.
Once the drill ends, Cary asked how they think it went.
“So, how was that pulling me over the side? Harder than you thought, right?” he said. “Imagine trying to reach down into the water?”
The Coast Guard requires commercial fishing boats to run drills for 10 different subjects once a month. By taking a Coast Guard class, fishermen such as Barnett can fulfill requirements for four different subjects, including what to do when someone falls overboard and how to use an onboard distress signal.
The importance of such drills is stressed over the 18-hour course. Students also learn how to repair a hole in the boat with bits of wood and rubber that are lying around most vessels. They’re taught to have a safe space on board for flammable materials.
Barnett has been in the fishing industry since he was a child tagging along behind his father. He says he’s still learning things about safety.
For example: “To get into the survival suit, you have to do something with your shoes. Your footwear does not slide in very easily, you either have to take them off or put plastic bags over them, or you’re going to struggle a lot to get into that survival suit,” he said.
Coast Guard Officer Mike Rudolph was the one who explained that putting plastic bags over shoes will help people slide into their survival suits in less than a minute. That can be life-saving information because a boat can sink in just two minutes.
Rudolph’s regular job involves examining fishing vessels for the Coast Guard to make sure they’re seaworthy. He says that 15 years ago, safety training was lacking along the Pacific coast. Fishermen had to drive up to Seattle to take Coast Guard classes.
But Rudolph says the culture along the coast is changing.
“I grew up at a time when I didn’t wear a bicycle helmet. The seat belt in the car was my mom’s hand keeping me from hitting the windshield,” he said. ” … I see it in a lot of the younger crew members coming on board. These are guys who grew up wearing bicycle helmets.”
A mile away, the notorious Tillamook Bay Bar rumbles. In 2003, 11 people died when the chartered fishing boat Taki-Tooo rolled over on the way out. Most fishermen have their own story to tell about the dangers of working the waters off Oregon.
Barnett remembers a storm that appeared suddenly when he was tuna fishing with his father.
“We were taking water over the top of the boat. And as I’m laying in the bunk, the boat rolls over to the side, there’s no air between the window, the water and me,” he said.
He survived, but the memory makes him very aware of the need to stay trained on basic safety.
The Coast Guard is offering another four survival classes between now and the first week of December — in Coos Bay, Newport and Astoria.