CAPE MAY — Edward Deller heard someone calling for help on the VHF radio’s emergency channel, and the first mate aboard the scallop boat Ms. Manya immediately followed the unwritten code of the sea: When somebody needs help, you drop everything and assist.
It was more than an hour before sunrise March 24, but even though about two dozen boats were working the scallop grounds known as the Elephant Trunk, many had shut down operations for the night to get some rest or shuck scallops. First mates such as Deller were manning wheelhouses on some of them.
Deller said he did not understand the frantic, garbled message — it came in with static, possibly because of saltwater soaking electrical systems aboard the Lady Mary — but he immediately went below deck and woke up Capt. Pete Dolan.
Dolan, a Stafford Township, Ocean County, resident based in Barnegat Light, was no stranger to answering maydays. He once saved three lobster fishermen whose boat had sunk and won a commendation in 2004 for responding to an exploding tanker hauling ethanol off the coast of Virginia.
Dolan said he tried to hail the Lady Mary but got no response. By then, crews on other boats in the vicinity were talking about the distress message. Dolan said he thought the other boats’ crews notified the U.S. Coast Guard.
“There were a lot of other boats between us and them. The last thing they needed was for someone else to be on the emergency channel,” he said. “Maybe it’s one of those things where people assume.”
Such assumptions continued for more than three hours. Even as a Coast Guard helicopter picked up three men from the Lady Mary at about 8:20 a.m., only one of whom survived, the fleet continued fishing. Helicopter pilot Lt. Cmdr. Tina Pena said she could see the fishing vessels and tried to reach them on the radio, but none responded.
The crew members found in the water included the boat’s captain, Bobo Smith, his brother Tim Smith and Jose Luis Arias, the lone survivor. Four other crew members — Jorge Ramos, Frank Reyes, the Smiths’ uncle Bernie Smith and their cousin Frank Credle — were never found and are presumed dead.
The Coast Guard began an inquiry into the sinking at about 5:10 a.m. April 14. It is now in recess and it is unclear when it will resume.
A broken code?
Weeks after the sinking that claimed the lives of six Cape May County fishermen, Dolan is surprised that nobody responded that day. He recalled some ignoring the code back in 2004 as he steamed toward the Bow Mariner, seeing an explosion in the distance, smelling the stench of ethanol fumes and arriving to find only bodies in the water.
“Not everyone lives by the code. I went by a couple boats that could have been there sooner. I was pretty disappointed in them,” Dolan said.
The code is especially important far offshore where the Lady Mary was fishing, about 70 miles out. A VHF radio call is not likely to reach the Coast Guard on shore, and few boat crews are accustomed to using the high-frequency radios that would reach land. An emergency beacon on the boat was sending a distress signal, but the government was slow in figuring out its source.
Sometimes, other fishermen are the best chance for survival.
The Coast Guard said only one boat reported hearing the mayday, and it did so almost 11 hours later. Asked why it took so long, the captain reportedly said he was busy fishing.
The code had worked out fine just a week earlier, when the North Carolina scallop boat Miss Dollie caught fire and sank 30 miles out March 17. Capt. Walt Hill, on the Cape May scalloper Amy Marie, was four miles away. Hill dropped everything and rescued the three-man crew.
One big difference in that case was Hill was able to speak with Miss Dollie Capt. Rocky Rochelle on the radio.
Rochelle said the Miss Dollie was taking on water and the crew wanted to be rescued.
In fact, the unwritten code becomes a written code in this case. If a captain on a sinking boat communicates with a captain on another boat and the distressed captain asks for help, he then is obligated by law to respond.
The personal connection of one captain asking another for help may have been the difference between the crew of the Miss Dollie living and most of those aboard the Lady Mary dying. Several captains heard the frantic call from the Lady Mary, but none was apparently able to make contact with the captain.
Too many boats to respond
Besides a lack of personal contact in the case, another issue is whether having too many boats out there made none of them individually responsible.
A communications professor at California’s Santa Clara University said the fishing fleet succumbed to a phenomenon called “de-individuation.” SunWolf, an author and former trial attorney who studies interpersonal and group communication, said when several nearby boats acknowledged hearing the distress call over the radio, the individual boat captains were absolved subconsciously of any responsibility for taking action.
“If a captain knew he was the only one out there to help, he would do something,” said SunWolf, who goes by only one name. “The sea is dangerous. Boats have trouble on the water. The Coast Guard rescues people. None of it is unexpected. Still, they were so de-individuated, to a captain they didn’t do anything.”
The garbled and incomplete distress message only complicated matters because it presented a situation outside the norm, she said.
“Fuzzy norms result in communications paralysis,” she said. “They were paralyzed.”
There were some other differences between the Miss Dollie and the Lady Mary. The Miss Dollie sank in broad daylight in much less severe weather. The captain was able to follow the mayday with more communications on the radio. It was only 30 miles off Cape May and the Coast Guard did pick up the mayday and responded, arriving 10 minutes after Hill.
With many foreign fishermen now working the boats in local waters, language barriers can obstruct rescues.
Scallop boat captain Doug Brennen, of Upper Township in Cape May County, does not believe that was an issue in this case. He was fishing alongside the 71-foot Lady Mary for five days before coming in the night before the sinking because the weather was getting too rough for his 58-foot Jessica.
Brennen said the language barrier is worse with cargo ships and oil tankers whose captains speak a variety of languages.
Jesse Sullivan, a mate on the Jessica, noted that Channel 16, the emergency channel, is still used mainly by English speakers. He said those speaking Spanish usually use another channel, although that may mean fewer listening to the channel the Lady Mary used to broadcast its mayday.
Another theory concerns the Elephant Trunk. The government closes scallop grounds to let stocks rebuild, and then opens the so-called “closed areas” to scallop boats from all over the East Coast. The areas draw boats from all over the coast when reopened, and the lack of familiarity between boat crews may have the potential to stifle a response.
Brennen said radio talk features a Northern-Southern mix, with “Rebels talking about Yankees,” but nobody believes such differences would prevent a response in case of emergency.
“Even if it’s their worst enemy, and they may hate them on the dock, they will go help them at sea,” said Douglass DeBolt, first mate on the Cape May-based Adventuress.
Capt. Gordie Mason blames the lack of response on a quick sinking at night with minimal radio contact. He said many boats “were laying up” for the night, so the sinking could have gone unnoticed. Mason, of Bayboro, N.C., the same city from which the owners of the Lady Mary hail — he knew four of the crew — said if people are not looking, they would not even see the boat’s lights disappear.
With the scallop management system bringing together boats from all over, Mason noted he has gotten to know captains from as far away as New Bedford, Mass. He already knew the Southern captains “by voice” over the radio.
“If they get in trouble, we don’t care where they’re from. We’re all brothers out there. Everybody’s in the same boat out there, and it could happen to anybody,” Mason said.
Scalloper Chris Buttocovla, of Mount Laurel, Burlington County, recalled ferrying to shore a fellow fisherman who was nearly blinded by a windblown cigarette. In grand fishing tradition, the Barnegat Light-based crew patched the man’s face with duct tape.
“You help because it could be you at any moment,” he said.
These are great days in the scallop fishery, with crewmen making more than $75,000 per year. Could money be more important than the code? That would not make sense at the Elephant Trunk. At the six closed areas, license holders get a set amount of scallops — 18,000 pounds per trip — with no timetable for landing them. In the open areas, they get only 37 days per year, and time becomes money.
The Lady Mary’s sinking convinced Cold Spring Fish & Supply owner Keith Laudeman to put “panic buttons” in all his boats. Scallop regulations require vessels to have a Vessel Monitoring System, or VMS, that shows location, course and speed at all times. For about $100, boats can have a panic button installed. A push of the button sends an alert that the boat is in trouble and gives the position so the Coast Guard can be called. Laudeman said it often takes a tragedy to get such things done that are essentially no-brainers.
Many other captains are now installing them.
“One hundred dollars is a cheap price for a man’s life,” said Bruce Cederquist, a mate aboard the Miss Georgie, the boat Mason captains.
Brennen is putting a distress button on the VHF radio. It costs about $300, but it notifies the Coast Guard and other VHF radios with the feature that there is a problem. It’s a push-button mayday. A couple of wires tie it directly to a GPS unit to give an exact position of the distressed vessel. Sullivan, the mate on the Jessica, said it could have saved the crew of the Lady Mary, who he said just “had a bad mayday.”
“Instead of getting on the radio in a panicked state, just hit this button,” Sullivan said.
DeBolt, first mate on the Adventuress, had the cheapest and simplest idea. He posted instructions on how to give a mayday and what buttons to push. On the Lady Mary, the captain may have been too busy trying to keep the boat afloat to broadcast a proper distress call. It was a short message described as a garbled plea for help that provided scant information for those in the vicinity, who could not identify the boat’s location or determine the urgency of its plight.
On many boats, the captain and first mate are usually the only ones who use the radio.
“I taught everybody on the boat how to do it,” DeBolt said.
That simple act, along with strict adherence to the code of the sea, may someday save his boat’s crew.
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