It is Jerry Dzugan’s responsibility to go out of his way to interview survivors following commercial fishing accidents. The recent loss of Wayne Gray and Rex Newlun on the Dangerous River near Yakutat is no exception. But learning the details of this story was particularly hard.

 “Two of the people in this incident in Yakutat had taken training from us in February. A drill conductor course.”

Dzugan heads the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association in Sitka – or AMSEA. Dzugan says the accident immediately makes him think about what in the training might have helped in this situation, and what he might have emphasized more.

Dzugan interviewed the lone survivor, 30-year old Jonathan Pavlik, at Sitka’s Mt. Edgecumbe Hospital. Pavlik was rescued after an aircraft pilot spotted him clinging to the top of the overturned skiff.

Dzugan says Pavlik was quite open about what elements of the AMSEA training had stuck with him.

“Don’t go in the water. Stay out of the water. That’s a really important point.”

Cold-water survival training is an overriding theme of AMSEA’s courses. The program trains fishermen on vessels from one-person operations to factory processors. Cold water is the one thing that all Alaskan fisheries have in common.

AMSEA also stresses the importance of personal flotation devices, but Pavlik was not wearing one. The two men who died were wearing life jackets, as were the five clam diggers who lost their lives in Cook Inlet in May.

Jennifer Lincoln is with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in Anchorage.

“The message is not that PFD’s don’t save your life, the message is that that PFD’s do save your life, but you also have to make sure that someone knows you’re in trouble.”

Lincoln and NIOSH have done extensive work on open-boat safety over the past few years, but the Cook Inlet and Yakutat tragedies comprise a cluster of sorts. She says she’s been expecting increased media attention on these events, and the fact that PFD’s did not save lives.

Lincoln says personal flotation is just the first step in survival in Alaska.

“A vessel sinking is a sequence of events. The earlier you can make communication with the Coast Guard or someone that can help you, the better off you are. And so in an event like a skiff capsizing, if there’s no way you can let someone know you’re in trouble, a PFD will keep you afloat, but the clock starts ticking as soon as you hit that cold water.”

You can survive immersed in the water for about thirty minutes until your core body temperature starts to drop. But you lose the ability to swim after ten minutes.

Although Jonathan Pavlik was not wearing a life jacket, Lincoln says he did the next best thing.

“You can imagine the skiff was his personal flotation device. He was able to get himself out of the water as much as possible. Although he wasn’t wearing a PFD, he was able to stay with the skiff and stay on top of it.”

Jerry Dzugan says the two Yakutat victims, Gray and Newlun, also stayed with the boat for several hours, wet and cold. But hypothermia does not just pose a risk to our bodies: Prolonged cold can affect our judgment. A day of training can’t change that.

“Just when you need to make good judgments about what to do in your situation, the cold starts unpeeling the onion that’s your brain, and you don’t make good decisions sometimes.”

But training attempts to put some core information deeper in the onion, Dzugan says, to give you something to hang on to when the right decision might seem counter intuitive.

 “An example would be: You see the beach. And it’s a few hundred yards away. Well, a knee-jerk reaction would be to go for the beach. A more thoughtful reaction is, Do I have something to float on? What’s the chance of being rescued, and how long?”

Pavlik was spotted by a passing pilot, from one of many aircraft that flew overhead that day, most of which did not see him. It was a lucky break, to be sure, but he was around to benefit by it.

Jennifer Lincoln says small-boat fishermen, whether commercial or recreational, have to have a waterproof radio or some other means to hedge their bets, along with personal flotation.

“The overriding fact is that Alaska has cold water, that PFDs do save lives, but there’s a communication element there that’s necessary for a successful rescue.”
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