Deviation from float plan hurt effort to save Coast Guardsmen

Deviation from a filed float plan and lack of proper equipment and clothing contributed to the deaths of two crewmembers of a Coast Guard patrol boat that capsized in Lake Ontario in March 2001, according to a Coast Guard report.

Four Coast Guardsmen were on patrol in a 21-foot foam-collar boat when they encountered steep waves on the lake. The crew headed back for the mouth of the Niagara River, but before they could reach protected waters, their boat was swamped and then capsized. Rather than hang on to the hull, the crew swam toward a nearby buoy.

The Coast Guard report identified a number of factors that delayed the arrival of rescuers and reduced the amount of time the men were able to survive in the cold, wet conditions. The two men who died succumbed to cardiac arrest brought on by hypothermia.

Shortly after the start of its night mission, the boat departed from its filed float plan and headed out to a point about three miles north of Niagara Station. The purpose of the excursion was to familiarize a new crewmember with this area of the station’s operations.

Deviating from their intended area of operation without notification hindered rescue efforts, the report said.

The patrol crew was ill-prepared for their cold-weather night mission. Although all of the crewmen had anti-exposure suits, there was an insufficient number of personal-issue cold-weather undergarments available for all crewmembers. Ideally, each crewman should have worn one layer of polypropylene undergarments and one layer of polyester fleece beneath the suit.

One crewman failed to properly don and vent his anti-exposure suit. This, combined with vigorous swimming, led to water intrusion into the suit.

Three of the four crewmembers failed to wear their SAR/Pyro vests. Although they provide no warmth, these vests are equipped with personal survival gear, such as a light and signaling device. There was no EPIRB aboard the boat (nor was it required at the time), and it lacked a functional signaling kit.

The accident happened at about 2000, or just about the time the boat was supposed to check in with Niagara Station by radio. When that call did not come through at the appointed time, the search began. A local fire department boat rescued all four men at 0027.

The report cited a failure to understand the risk level. “Routine does not equal low risk,” the report stated.

What was treated as routine may have actually been high risk, when such factors as cold air, water temperature, a junior crewmember, night operations and law enforcement were factored in. The report suggested that a careful consideration of these factors might have led to the mission being cancelled or postponed until daylight.

The Coast Guard has initiated a number of corrective actions in response to the accident. They include:

  • Providing boat crewmember personal anti-exposure suits and undergarments.
  • Requiring boat crews to “don and manipulate every piece of survival gear that the unit is required to carry, in the conditions for which they were designed.”
  • Requiring boat crewmembers to show proficiency in survival techniques.
  • Requiring crewmen to carry personal EPIRBs if one is not carried on the boat.
  • By Professional Mariner Staff