One rogue wave or false step, an ankle caught in a line, is all it takes to cast a fisherman overboard. But those risks have never been enough to convince Rick Beal that it’s worth wearing a life preserver.
Even though he has never learned how to swim.
Commercial fishing ranks among the most dangerous professions, but fishermen — fiercely independent and resistant to regulations — have long shunned life preservers, often dismissing the flotation devices as inconvenient and constraining.
Between 2000 and 2013, 665 US fishermen died at sea, nearly one-third of them after falling overboard. Not one of the latter group was wearing a life preserver, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Unlike many mariners, commercial fishermen aren’t required to wear them, although the government requires their boats to carry life preservers.
When a clam boat sank off Nantucket earlier this month, two fishermen who were apparently not wearing flotation devices died, while a pair of crew members who managed to put on life-saving gear survived.
The fatal capsizing of the Misty Blue has renewed calls for requiring fishermen to wear life preservers, just as bikers must wear helmets and drivers use seat belts. Those safety measures also faced considerable resistance before gaining acceptance.
“I don’t see why fishing boats should be exempted from a requirement that exists for just about every other working boat,” said John Bullard, the regional administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, noting that seamen in the Coast Guard and many in the merchant marine are required to wear life preservers while on deck. “I know it’s inconvenient. But it’s not just about the individual wearing it’s about the wife or the child back home who’s hoping they return.”
Fishermen, already subject to a welter of government regulations, bristle at the idea of more. Their safety should be their concern, they say.
Beal, who for 51 years has dragged for cod and other groundfish through the occasionally high seas off Gloucester, regularly crosses icy docks and operates dangerous machinery on slippery, fish-strewn decks. But even the constant pleading of his 9-year-old granddaughter hasn’t persuaded him to wear a life jacket.
“You just come to accept some things — that if you go overboard, you go,” said Beal, 65. “That’s it.”
Yet fishermen’s concerns about the restrictiveness of life preservers are becoming increasingly outdated. Many modern flotation devices are designed to be comfortable and unobtrusive. Some can be worn like suspenders and don’t inflate until they contact the water. Others are stitched into the fabric of sweat shirts or waders. Still others can be worn as belts and inflated with the pull of a rip cord.
Terry Alexander, a fisherman who serves as chairman of the enforcement and safety committee of the New England Fishery Management Council, which oversees the region’s fishing issues, has urged his crew to wear life preservers when they’re on deck. But they rarely listen, and he hasn’t pressed them.
“We need a culture change,” he said. “They’re now easy enough to wear, and there’s no excuse not to wear them. As far as I’m concerned, it should be a requirement.”
Life preservers buy fishermen crucial time for their boats to rescue them. In cold water, most people lose circulation to their extremities and have trouble swimming after about 10 minutes; a life preserver can allow them to survive for about an hour.
Fishermen who doubt life preservers would make a difference if they fall overboard far from shore should wear them for another reason, Alexander said. The devices make it easier to find their bodies.
“At the least, they would help provide their families a little closure,” Alexander said.
To understand why so many refuse to use life preservers, researchers surveyed nearly 200 fishermen who attended safety-training courses in Massachusetts for a study published two years ago in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.
They found that more than three-quarters did not wear a life preserver, even though those fishermen acknowledged their work is highly dangerous and they knew colleagues who had died at sea.
In interviews, fishermen cited several reasons for their reluctance. The flotation devices were uncomfortable, and they worried they might get entangled in them. Some said they were concerned about the expense — some models can cost as much as $300 — or were unaware of the newer designs, in part because many marine equipment stores carried only the older, bulkier vests.
The study concluded that “formidable barriers to the widespread and consistent use” of life preservers remain and that more must be done to educate fishermen about new designs.
“Most had never tried the newer inflatable or built-in rain gear [life preserver] styles, let alone worn one while fishing,” the researchers wrote.
Still, Julie Sorensen, one of the authors, questioned whether fishermen should be required to wear life preservers, saying incentives might be more effective.
“Deep down, I think they want to do this, but they don’t want to be told they have to do it,” said Sorensen, director of the Northeast Center for Occupational Health and Safety, a nonprofit group in New York.
A life preserver mandate would be enforced by the Coast Guard, which already requires fishing vessels that operate more than 3 miles offshore to carry a range of safety gear, including life rafts, survival suits, distress flares, tracking beacons, and bilge alarms.
Ted Harrington, who oversees safety issues for fishermen from New Jersey to Maine for the Coast Guard, is also skeptical about requiring fishermen to submit to new regulations.
Yet the need for more fishermen to wear them is vital, he said. Harrington has met dozens of fishermen who can’t swim. Among those who never learned to swim was Michael Roberts, 49, of Fairhaven, one of the fishermen who died on the Misty Blue.
“I’m always amazed to hear that a fisherman doesn’t know how to swim,” Harrington said. “Whatever their reason for not wearing a life preserver, we can provide better reasons for wearing them. It’s really the right thing to do.”
Joe Orlando, another fisherman from Gloucester who never learned to swim, ticked off a list of reasons why he doesn’t wear a life preserver. But he acknowledged they’re probably poor excuses.
“It’s something we should be doing, but we don’t,” he said.
What would make him change?
“If they required me to wear one, I’d wear it,” he said. “Maybe that’s what it would take.”
For Rick Beal, the answer might be sustained peer pressure, particularly from relatives. He went years without wearing seat belts, even after they became mandatory. But at the urging of his children, then grandchildren, he finally relented. He didn’t want to be a bad role model.
“They forced me,” he said.
Beal described himself as “old school” and said he didn’t know what it would take for him to start wearing a life preserver.
But when it comes to his granddaughter, he has no doubt what he would do if she were to board his boat.
“I would absolutely make her wear a life preserver,” he said.