WILDWOOD CREST — Wearing bright red neoprene immersion suits, fishermen and vessel crew members who participated in Thursday’s safety training program lined up on the docks of Two Mile Landing Marina and jumped one by one into the 60-degree water.
The teams of four were then tasked with chaining together in a survival formation and climbing into an inflatable raft. While strong winds and choppy water, along with the physicality of swimming in the survival suit, proved a challenge for some, the drill paled in comparison to the sea conditions the crew members could experience during an actual emergency.
“A lot of fishermen have never actually been in the water, so that’s a big eye opener for them,” said Ed Dennehy, director of safety training for Fishing Partnership Support Services.
Coast Guard Reservist and first responder Kyle Graeber, of Williamstown, said he had worn the survival suit before in training with his prior fire service job, but was looking forward to the in-water safety training.
“Whatever I can get to ... anything to advance my training,” Graeber said.
The Massachusetts-based nonprofit brought a team of marine safety consultants and fishermen to instruct the local crew members on five aspects of vessel safety: man-overboard training; damage control; fire safety; flares, signalling and emergency communication; and emergency evacuations using immersion survival suits and inflatable life rafts.
A grant from the Coast Guard helped bring the program to Cape May County for the first time, and turned the waterfront restaurant and marina, which has closed for the season, into a classroom and field test lab for several real-life emergency situations.
“They are their own first responders, so they need to be able to address those emergencies on their own,” said Dennehy.
Since the early 2000s, commercial fishing has been considered one of the most dangerous professions. Fishermen are 37 times more likely to die on the job than police officers, according to the Fishing Partnership Support Services website.
Fishermen are often thousands of miles away from the closest emergency response.
“You know when things get out of hand, then they call in the Coast Guard ... but that’s what we’re trying to get across, how to protect themselves by themselves as best they can.” Dennehy said.
The first day of the training sessions began with a safety video showing proper techniques to help a man overboard. A few of the working fishermen explained issues that occurred while they were out at sea, including ill-fitting life vests and the struggles crew members had bringing heavier fishermen back aboard.
“It comes down to practicing,” said Matthew Pawlishen, a marine safety consultant and instructor with the Fishing Partnership Support Service, as he showed how to properly get into a bright red immersion survival suit.
The neoprene dry suits, nicknamed “Gumby suits,” are the most important piece of equipment the fishermen use if they need to abandon ship, becoming a full -ody flotation device and preventing hypothermia.
Despite safety requirements that state that boats have one of the upwards-of-$500 suits for every crew member, Pawlishen and fellow safety instructor Mark Bisnette shared stories of failed boat inspections with out-of-date, ill-fitting or missing survival suits.
“We have a lot of occasions where people bring their suits that they’re assigned by from their boat and there’s no way that it fits them,” Bisnette said.
A universal survival suit is designed to fit a crew member ranging in height from 4-foot-10 to 6-foot-3 and 110 to more than 200 pounds, so understanding how to fit a suit to a crew member is crucial.
“Getting into the water is like walking on the moon,” said Pawlishen. “If you’ve done it before once, if you ever have to use (your suit) in the future, you have that reassurance that you can do it.”
Thursday’s session included a fire safety demonstration in which the fishermen practiced putting out a gasoline fire on water using carbon dioxide and chemical extinguishers.
Common fires aboard a commercial fishing vessel start in the galley, or cooking area, the pilot house or the engine room.
The training will continue Friday with an advanced course for those looking to be certified to conduct monthly drills on their own vessels.
“I’ve been a fisherman for 40 years,” said Captain Bill Miller of Lund’s Fisheries in Cape May. “Every time there’s one of these safety events, I come. I always learn something new.”