In Hancock County, Maine, on April 3, 2016
It’s a cloudy Sunday in Stonington Harbor. It's also cold for an April afternoon (35 degrees Fahrenheit), with ripping winds of up to 12 knots that numb our cheeks. We're putting up with some discomfort to try to identify what at first appears to be pieces of red jetsam moving on the incoming tide toward a pier float, where a few people are huddled.
It soon becomes apparent that we’re watching fishermen swimming slowly on their backs in rubberized immersion suits, also known as survival or exposure suits. (These garments also are called Gumbies by some, for reasons that are apparent.) We’ve come upon one of the drills offered on weekends in harbors along the coast to allow commercial fishermen to satisfy Coast Guard and State safety training requirements.
Commercial fishing is one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, it is the most lethal occupation when viewed by the number of fatalities; and, according to those same statistics, most fatalities occur when fishing off the East Coast. (Fishing off Alaska is second.) The primary causes of such deaths are major vessel mishaps in rough and cold waters (breakups, rollovers, etc.) and fishermen falling or being dragged into the sea.
Under the regulations, a commercial fisherman is one who seeks and sells “fish,” which are defined as fin fish (e.g., swordfish), mollusks (clams and scallops), and crustaceans (lobsters and crabs). Judging by the talk on the float, our swimmers are mostly lobster and scallop fishermen and it appears that they are of both sexes (although Gumby suits make such determinations educated guesses).
Based on Internet advertising, the cost of Coast Guard-approved Immersion suits ranges between about $400.00 and $600.00. Most appear to be of the one-size-fits-all variety, which makes smaller people more Gumby-like.
Federal requirements for the use of such suits and other more expensive survival equipment are keyed to fishing in dangerously “cold water,” which is defined as water that has a monthly low temperature average of below 59 degrees. Thus, depending on where you are and when you are there, you may not be subject to the cold water regulations. However, if you’re fishing in Maine, you’re in such cold water all year.
Cold water robs the body of heat 32 times faster than cold air. Hypothermia is the danger: the colder the water in which one is immersed, the quicker the muscles and organs begin to cease functioning until there is unconsciousness and the lungs and heart stop; death comes as a relief. Immersion suits, which are designed to keep survivors "comfortably" on their backs with heads out of the water, can provide hours of protection during which a rescue may be made.
Today, the reported temperature of the water here is 38 degrees. The medical data show that, in waters between 30 and 40 degrees, swimmers without immersion suits can expect to be exhausted or unconscious within 15 to 30 minutes of their being immersed and dead within 30 to 90 minutes. Getting out of the water into a raft would increase survival chances 15 percent.
If you want to see a few more (larger) images on this short, 10-second subject, click the link below. We recommend that your initial screening be a full-frame slideshow. (To make that happen, click on the Slideshow button above the featured [largest] image on the gallery page to which the link will take you.) Here's the link:
Barbara and Dick