Winter winds and cold temperatures might keep mere mortals inside, but the demand for seafood keeps our commercial fishermen offshore, working to provide for an insatiable market. Working at sea comes with many dangers; throw in gales and bitter cold, and the danger increases exponentially.
Which brings me to the F/V Emmy Rose. For reasons not yet determined, she sank 20 miles northeast of Race Point early on Monday, Nov. 23. Hailing from Portland, Maine, she was bound for Gloucester with a hold full of haddock, pollock, and monkfish caught around Georges Bank. The weather was nasty, with high winds and waves from an approaching cold front.
The search has been suspended, and it is assumed the crew of four have perished in the unforgiving sea. As Gordon Lightfoot sang, “And all that remains is the faces and names of the wives and the sons and the daughters.”
An event like this brings a deep sadness to all, but especially to the men and women who work offshore. It also brings a sense of uneasiness, because we are reminded how easily this can happen once the lines are let go of the dock and the boat heads out to sea.
Anyone who has worked offshore for any length of time has had a “come to Jesus” moment when things went horribly wrong and the crew instantly recognized their mortality. We’ve all been there. I had my fair share of such moments while cod and tile fishing in January out by the Hudson Canyon, and evacuating offshore drilling rigs as hurricanes approached in the Gulf of Mexico.
As Capt. Dana Pazolt of the Black Sheep says, “It only takes one bad hose clamp and one green bilge pump wire to keep you from getting home.” Capt. Mark DaLomba of the Dolphin Fleet knows that running in rough weather is a crapshoot. “We all can leave the dock with a healthy respect for the power of the ocean,” he says. “But we’ve all had those times when the waves turn the minutes to hours. It’s in those times your fate could be riding on the next wave.”
The only difference between those of us who can talk and write about it and those who can’t is a little bit of luck. For that reason, few of us will ever judge a captain or crew who suffer a catastrophe, or try to guess what they did or did not do to avoid it.
Commercial fishing is an extremely dangerous profession; according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, only mining is more dangerous. These men and women all know what they are signing up for and are betting they aren’t going to be one of the unfortunate ones.
What I can tell you is that things can go from bad to very bad in the wink of an eye on even the best maintained boat. Losing a rudder, a propeller shaft backing out of the motor, a weld giving way from metal fatigue, hitting an unseen partially submerged object, a rogue wave crashing through the wheelhouse, or suddenly losing engine propulsion can quickly put a crew in mortal danger. In minutes, the best laid emergency plans can be rendered useless through no fault of anyone on board. It sounds good when you’re told at the dock that you just get in your survival suit, hop in your life raft, take your cell phone, and wait to be rescued. You might have two minutes to get off the boat before she rolls over in 20-foot seas. And you can’t find the survival suit in the pitch darkness and in waist-deep ice water.
The Emmy Rose’s emergency position indicating radio beacon went off, alerting the Coast Guard. It deploys automatically when a boat sinks and floats on the surface, transmitting the position to rescuers so they can zero in on the location. Unfortunately, when they got to the location of the Emmy Rose, all they saw was an empty life raft. This suggests that things went bad too fast for the crew to safely evacuate.
Our hearts go out to the families of the crew, and we hope they have the strength to endure this unspeakable tragedy.