Fishermen Input Sought on Safety Gear

by Laurie Schreiber

Mike Jackson and wife Kathy at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum in March 2017. Jackson fished offshore in the Bering Sea. He had been overboard more than once and witnessed others go. It led him to promote and sell survival equipment. He was at the Forum representing the company he founded with his brother in 1991, Grunden’s USA, where he spoke at a seminar about safety at sea. Mark Haskell photo

ROCKPORT—Falls overboard are the leading cause of death in the Northeast lobster fishery.

According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Center for Maritime Safety and Health Studies, falls can largely be prevented with the regular use of personal flotation devices (PFDs). Yet fishermen consistently report that they don’t regularly wear PFDs because they’re not comfortable and can be difficult and dangerous to work in.

At the Maine Fishermen’s Forum in early March, Grundens USA president Mike Jackson offered his personal experience as an example of why fishermen should wear PDFs. Jackson started Grundens USA in 1991. Before that, he fished Alaska’s waters, purse seining and gillnetting in the Southeast, longlining in the Gulf of Alaska, and crab fishing in the Bering Sea.

“There’s not a single person in this room who doesn’t want to come home,” Jackson told the audience of fishermen. “Making a living from the sea is honest, hard work. But coming home is what it’s all about.”

Jackson said he grew up in Seattle, and made his first trip to Alaska when he was 18. Early on, he went overboard in the Bering Sea in 30-foot seas and 30-degree surface water temperature.“In circumstances like that, there’s not many people who get to talk about it,” he said. “The devil is in the details, because things can go wrong so fast, and nobody’s prepared for them.”

Fishermen compared the Bering Sea to molten lava, he said, because almost anyone who fell overboard was gone. Although he wasn’t wearing a PFD, he was lucky, he said. While tending a pot, he was dropping a buoy line into a block. The line hit the hydraulic valve that controlled the block and threw it into reverse. Jackson’s hand got caught into the block and he was stretched out over the side of the boat. The buoy came at him, hit him, and launched him overboard.

“Launched me like a cannon, it happened so fast,” he said.

In the heaving seas, he rotated toward the boat, guided by a halogen light on top of the mast. His three crewmates saw him go overboard and tried to grab him, but couldn’t reach him. Jackson was washed further aft. The boat’s deck was full of gear, so the only space the crew had to try to reach him was from where he had gone overboard.

One man launched a life ring, but with the wind blowing 50 knots, it was blown away.

“At this point, it’s all instinctual,” Jackson said.

He tried to grab onto one of the buoys. “But that was like going for a beach ball, and in 30-degree water, you lose control of your limbs quickly.”

He was washed to the starboard side of the transom, pushed away from the boat by pressure waves whenever the boat came down a wave, then suctioned back toward it going up a wave. He tried to grab onto a scupper, but the scuppers had been welded over earlier in the season.

“So all I’m doing is pawing at steel,” he said.

In the meantime, he said, the three crew members onboard were panicked as much as he was, and forgot to notify the captain.

“Nobody yelled ‘man overboard,’” he said. “The captain had no idea what was going on.”

Fortunately, it didn’t take long for the captain to notice that enough time had gone by and the crew should have been done tending the pot.

“He comes to the station and sees me in the water,” Jackson said. “It was his action that save my life. He slammed the boat in reverse. I slid up the starboard side and he came like a bolt out of the wheelhouse and was able to grab a hook and get me caught underneath the shoulder. He pulled me onto the boat and waited for the roll. It was like rolling a 200-pound halibut on the deck.”

The moral of the story, he said, is how fast it happened.

“I had a lifejacket,” he said. “It was a suspender-type model. When I went over, it was under my bunk.”

The experience didn’t scare him off from fishing. But he did start wearing his PFD.

That’s when he went overboard a second time. It was two weeks later, the season was over and the crew was picking up gear to go home back to Seattle. The circumstances were similar—deck full of gear, wind blowing, and 30-foot breaking seas.

While stacking the gear, one of the crew members got his arm stuck between two pots that had smashed together in the rolling sea. When the stack shifted the other way, he pulled his arm out so fast that he flew overboard. Jackson heard and saw him.

“I’m wearing a life jacket and I was the only thing that could get to him that could float,” he said. “So I went after him.”

This time, the crew was prepared, having conducted man-overboard drills after the first incident. The two crew members still onboard kept visual contact with the two men in the sea, who were visible only when they crested the waves. The captain made his turn and returned, bucking in the waves.

“We’d get a glimpse, like a slow-motion strobe,” Jackson said. “We were in absolute darkness, and the wind was howling. We saw the guys on the bow silhouetted.”

With the boat almost on them, it looked like it was going to crash down on them from 30 feet overhead. But then they were snagged by grappling hook and hauled back onboard.

The experiences took his life in the direction of developing safety gear that fishermen would wear, he said.

Julie Sorensen and Rebecca Weil, director and Commercial Fishing Research and Personal Flotation Device Project Coordinator, respectively for the Cooperstown, N.Y.-based Northeast Center for Occupational Health and Safety, said the agency is working on a project with fishermen to find a PFD design that will work for the industry.

Fishing and forestry are the nation’s two most dangerous industries, said Sorensen. On the East Coast, she said, falls overboard make up a high proportion of causes of fatalities. Of the 22 percent of fishermen who died in a fall overboard from 2000 through 2014, not one was wearing a PFD, she said.

Weil said the agency has received a grant to address the problem, including getting feedback from fishermen about the features and qualities they want in safety gear. A variety of designs in tests now include automatic deployment life vests, manual inflation, and those that are inherently buoyant. After getting feedback, the agency will return to manufacturers for redesigns, with further trials to follow, she said.

The agency is also looking at other safety gear, such as a remote engine kill switch, a man-overboard alarm, personal location beacons, and ladders and lifeslings to get back on boats.

Sorensen ( and Weil ( invited fishermen to contact them.