Inadequate repair led to sinking of fishing vessel Grace Marie, says NTSB

The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has concluded that an inappropriate hull repair to 1978-built fishing vessel Grace Marie (IMO 7908366) was probably the cause of the flooding that resulted in the vessel sinking.

On July 6th 2022 the trawler departed Gloucester, Massachusetts and headed to its fishing grounds, which were located about 75nm out to sea.

Both captain and crew had decades of experience, including many years of working on the same vessel.

After two days’ fishing the Grace Marie’s hold was nearly full. The captain got under way for the next location. That evening, July 8th, the engine room bilge alarm sounded in the wheelhouse. However, this was not considered to be an indication of an emergency, as water would accumulate from the stuffing box, overflow from the fish hold, and grey water from the vessel’s sinks – the drain lines were routed into the bilge.

A few minutes before the alarm sounded a deckhand had been in the engine room to refill a fuel service tank, and he said that he saw nothing unusual. The captain started one of the space’s three bilge pumps remotely and carried on.

Ten minutes later the engine room’s high-high bilge alarm sounded, indicating that the water level was still rising. This was not an ordinary occurrence. The captain went to investigate with a deckhand. Both saw water rising steadily in the engine room’s bilges, but they could not find the source of the leak. As a precautionary measure the captain started the other two bilge pumps and closed both of the boat’s seacocks. But the water continued to rise.

The captain ordered the crew to prepare to abandon ship, and at 22:10, only 10 minutes after the high-high bilge alarm, the Grace Marie put out a mayday call. A nearby fishing vessel, the Dawn T, responded. The crew abandoned ship into a life raft at 22:20, and the good Samaritan vessel brought them all safely aboard  by 2234.

The crew remained on scene for two hours. They saw the Grace Marie take on a starboard list. At 00:48 its  lights went out, at which point the Dawn T departed and headed for its home port.

The Grace Marie’s float-free EPIRB activated automatically at 02:41, giving a good indication of the time and location of her sinking. After dawn a US Coast Guard overflight confirmed the presence of a 350 x 150ft oil sheen at the EPIRB coordinates.

The vessel was a total loss and was not salvaged or surveyed. The value of the loss was estimated at about $650,000.

The vessel’s last US Coast Guard safety-gear inspection in 2020 had not found any deficiencies, and a 2018 hull survey found that the bottom was “in overall good condition for a vessel of its age.” The crew had seen nothing wrong with the stuffing box, which had been operating normally.

The NTSB noted from the 2018 survey that the vessel had two 3/8 of an inch-thick doubler plates on each side of the keel. These had been welded on some eight to 10 years before the sinking because the hull condition in that area had, according to the owner, been “a little spotty”. The vessel’s master told investigators that “it was all doubler plate” under the engine room.

Doubler plate is permitted for temporary and permanent repairs aboard uninspected fishing vessels, but it is not recommended best practice, the USCG said, warning that doubler plates could concentrate hull stresses in the area of the repair. They also prevented inspection of the condition of the hull underneath.

The USCG said that “where doublers have been used, they tend to proliferate as randomly placed patches which often serve only to cover up the deficiencies which would otherwise indicate the true condition of the hull.” The coast guard recommends cropping out wasted steel plate back to good material and installing new plate to bring the vessel back to specification.

Ruling out other possible explanations, NTSB concluded that the vessel likely went down because of “a failure of the doubler-plated hull below the engine room.” It noted that doubler plates were common on uninspected fishing vessels. It advised that they were “not generally suitable as a permanent repair for a vessel’s hull.”

1978-built, USA-flagged, 117 gt Grace Marie is owned and managed by AGV Co Ltd of Gloucester, Massachusetts, USA.