Fatal fishing boat capsizing likely caused by hatches not being watertight, NTSB report reveals

Side scan sonar image of the fishing vessel Emmy Rose on the seafloor off Massachusetts captured on May 20, 2021 (Photo: MIND Technology)

​The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said earlier this week that the fishing vessel Emmy Rose likely capsized in 2020 after seawater collected on the aft deck and flooded into the vessel through deck hatches that were not watertight, resulting in the loss of the four-strong crew.

NTSB investigators also found that two freeing ports, designed to drain water, were closed. That caused the vessel to list starboard, further reducing Emmy Rose’s already compromised stability.

Although investigators could not definitively determine the source of initial flooding, it most likely began through the lazarette hatch’s cover, which did not have securing mechanisms and therefore could not be made watertight. That allowed following seas – seawater that flows in the same direction as the vessel – and accumulating water on deck to flood down into the lazarette, a compartment below the deck in the aft end of a vessel.

​As a result of the investigation, the NTSB recommended that the US Coast Guard increase the scope of commercial fishing vessel safety examinations to include inspection of a vessel’s freeing port cover design to determine whether the covers are constructed to allow water to readily flow outboard, as intended, and not inboard. A second recommendation was to also include inspection of a vessel’s hatch covers to determine whether these are watertight and have adequate securing mechanisms.

NTSB also reiterated an earlier safety recommendation to the coast guard to require all vessel personnel be provided with a personal locator beacon (PLB). Thw NTSB issued that recommendation following the sinking of the cargo vessel El Faro in 2015 in which all 33 crewmembers perished.

The NTSB also reiterated the recommendation after the fishing vessel Scandies Rose sank off Sutwik Island, Alaska, in 2019. Two of the vessel’s crewmembers were rescued while the other five were never found.

The NTSB concluded in both investigations that personal locator beacons would have aided search and rescue (SAR) operations by providing continuously updated and correct coordinates of crewmembers’ locations. The recommendation remains open.

After departing Portland, Maine, on November 17, 2020, the four crewmembers aboard the commercial fishing vessel Emmy Rose fished for five days in the Gulf of Maine. On November 22, the captain notified a seafood distribution facility in Gloucester, Massachusetts, that they had assorted groundfish to offload and expected to arrive the following morning.

In the early morning hours (local time) of November 23, the US Coast Guard in Boston received and responded to a distress signal from the vessel. The coast guard searched more than 2,200 square miles (5,697 square kilometres) over a 38-hour period, but the vessel had sunk.

The vessel was declared a total loss valued at US$325,000.

As the lead agency for the investigation, the US Coast Guard convened a formal marine casualty investigation and worked closely with NTSB. The coast guard completed a Report of Investigation in June 2022.

Emmy Rose was located with the aid of side scan sonar on May 19, 2021, about 3.5 miles (5.6 kilometres) west of its last known position, at a depth of 794 feet (242 metres). A remotely operated vehicle (ROV) survey, conducted in September 2021, confirmed the location of Emmy Rose‘s wreckage and examined the vessel for visible damage.

NTSB investigators found that at the time of the sinking, Emmy Rose likely did not meet existing stability criteria, making it more susceptible to capsizing. The return course toward Gloucester subjected the vessel to winds and seas that likely resulted in the accumulation of seawater on the aft working deck.

NTSB determined the probable cause of the sinking of Emmy Rose was a sudden loss of stability (capsizing) caused by water collecting on the aft deck and subsequent flooding through deck hatches, which were not watertight or weathertight because they had covers that did not have securing mechanisms, contrary to the vessel’s stability instructions and commercial fishing vessel regulations.

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