The Transportation Safety Board (TSB) recently concluded that vessel stability issues were one of the major causes of the 2020 sinking of the Chief William Saulis.

According to the TSB report, on December 15, 2020, shortly after midnight, the fishing vessel Chief William Saulis, with six crew members on board, departed Chignecto Bay, New Brunswick, to return to port in Digby, Nova Scotia. Shortly after 5:50 am, the vessel’s emergency position-indicating radio beacon activated, 12 nautical miles off the coast of Digby.

Search and rescue efforts were initiated after the vessel could not be reached via very high frequency (VHF) radio or phone. The body of one crew member was recovered approximately 10 and a half hours after the vessel’s EPIRB activated. The vessel was eventually located a month later near Delaps Cove, Nova Scotia. The other five crew members remain missing.

The TSB concluded that one of the main safety deficiencies that caused or contributed to the tragedy was the vessel’s lack of a formal stability assessment.

“Without a formal stability assessment, the crew made operating decisions that likely affected the vessel’s stability without sufficient knowledge of the vessel’s safe operating limits. The vessel departed the fishing grounds with unshucked scallops on deck and the freeing ports were likely covered either mechanically or by scallops so that water from the heavy beam sea also accumulated on deck. The resulting free surface effect from shifting scallops and water and the rolling motion from the heavy beam sea likely caused the vessel to capsize and sink,” the TSB stated.

A completed stability analysis is one of the best procedures owners and operators of fishing vessels can undertake to ensure the safety of their vessel and crew.

This analysis, which could be a full stability booklet or a simplified method of stability assessment, will help the captain and crew understand the operational limits of the vessel as it relates to fishing gear and catch.

Owners of small fishing vessels should refer to Ship Safety Bulletin 03/2017 to understand how the rules impact new and existing vessels differently. As well, subsection 9(11) of the Large Fishing Vessel Inspection Regulations (LFVIR) requires a vessel to go through a new stability assessment if it is modified in a way that affects its stability characteristics. Modifications to the structure or equipment of a vessel may change its stability and the way it behaves at sea. The following are some of the vessel owner/operator obligations:

  1. Doing a stability assessment if the vessel has gone through a major modification or change in activity that is likely to adversely affect its stability.
  2. Recording modifications made to the structure or equipment of a vessel.
  3. Having accurate vessel stability information and useable guidelines the vessel’s master and crew can easily and quickly interpret.
  4. Updating operational procedures when a vessel is modified, to account for changes that may affect stability.
  5. Providing the new owner with any vessel records when ownership of a fishing vessel is transferred.

The Canada Shipping Act 2001 requires a vessel’s master to take all reasonable steps to ensure the safety of the vessel and people on board. It also requires the vessel’s authorized representative to develop procedures for the safe operation of the vessel and for dealing with emergencies; this includes assessing any impact to vessel stability when the vessel is modified.

Some modifications have an obvious effect on the stability of the vessel, such as a change in fishing method that increases the amount of equipment or gear on deck. However, other modifications may not be significant enough to require an immediate reassessment of stability.

Not all owners give consideration to the effect of changes on their vessel’s stability. Modifications such as stern extensions, raising the main deck and the addition of shelter decks will change the handling and stability characteristics of the vessel.

Such alterations could change the hull form and the centre of gravity and buoyancy of the vessel. Adding or modifying deck equipment such as winches, A-frames and stabilizers will also have similar effects on stability.

Changing the amount and type of fishing gear you carry as well as the amount and arrangement of fish carried in the hold will also change the stability characteristics. If you have a stability booklet that is completed for capelin or herring fishing, don’t assume that it will pass all requirements to fish for shrimp for example.

These types of changes could affect vessel trim, freeboard and top weight, all of which typically have a negative effect on stability. Often one change alone may not cause a negative effect but it is common to make changes over several years which could all add up to a gradual overall negative effect on stability.

An example could be the addition of a deck crane, adding tubs of rope and gear on the shelter deck, adding stabilizers and making the wheelhouse bigger. It is not until sometime later that the owner has a close call and wonders what could have went wrong.

Not all vessel changes will have a negative effect on stability. The addition of a stern extension or bulbous bow for example, increases the vessel’s buoyancy and overall size and will often result in a vessel that has better efficiency and stability. Moving deck winches from the upper deck to the main deck is another example of an alteration that improves stability.

A vessel that you have become comfortable with over time may no longer be safe if it has been modified.