Cundy’s Harbor lobsterman Matt Gilley floats on his back in an immersion suit during a training with Fishing Partnership Support Services on Thursday, May 5. (J.W. OLIVER PHOTO)

When something goes wrong at sea, like a boat capsizing or catching fire, fishermen have moments to make a series of decisions that may determine whether they live or die. But training for disaster can increase the likelihood of survival.

That’s the idea behind a traveling safety training for fishermen that arrived in Cundy’s Harbor on Thursday and Friday, May 5 and 6. The training was free and available to both fishermen and aquaculturists.

Fishing Partnership Support Services, of New Bedford, Massachusetts, led classes at the Cundy’s Harbor Community Hall and hands-on exercises at the Holbrook Community Foundation.

The first day was a general safety and survival training. On the second day, participants could come back for additional training to earn their certification as drill instructors.

The general training covers emergency beacons, signal flares, mayday calls, man overboard recovery, firefighting, flooding and damage control, dewatering pumps, immersion suits, personal flotation devices and life rafts.

A fisherman in an immersion suit steps off Holbrook Wharf during a safety and survival training with Fishing Partnership Support Services on Thursday, May 5. (J.W. OLIVER PHOTO)

Around midday Thursday, one group of fishermen learned about immersion suits, also known as survival suits, at Holbrook Wharf.

Gesturing to a suit, instructor Dana Collyer told participants that in many situations, “If you don’t put that on and you go overboard, you will die.”

Fellow instructor Mark Bisnette put it another way. “This is your parachute at sea,” Bisnette said.

Instructors stressed the importance of everyone on a boat having a suit that fits them — and trying their suit on to make sure, rather than trusting manufacturer specifications for height and weight.

After about a half-hour of instruction on land, the fishermen donned survival suits and headed down to the dock. One by one, they stepped sideways off the dock and into the harbor, then formed a line and helped each other swim to a life raft and climb in. A diver with the Maine State Police was on standby in the water.

Five trainees in immersion suits paddle back to Holbrook Wharf as a Maine State Police diver stands by. (J.W. OLIVER PHOTO)

Chris Chadwick, of Port Clyde, captains two fishing vessels out of New Bedford, Massachusetts, the Kineo and the Tor Bay, which carry up to 10 crew members apiece. He attended the training to earn his certification as a drill instructor.

The Cundy’s Harbor training was Chadwick’s first time wearing a survival suit in the water, and he was grateful for the practice. “There’s no other way to do it than just to do it,” Chadwick said.

Dan Orchard, executive vice president of Fishing Partnership Support Services, said that 13 fishermen participated in the Cundy’s Harbor training. He had hoped for more, but figured that many would-be trainees opted to fish while the weather was mild and sunny. 

A fisherman clambers into a life raft during a safety and survival training at Holbrook Wharf in Cundy’s Harbor on Thursday, May 5. (J.W. OLIVER PHOTO)

Orchard, a former commercial fisherman, shared examples of fishermen who have survived emergencies at sea because of their training. One sternman on a lobster boat attended a training and started wearing an inflatable personal flotation device at work. A week later, he went overboard while setting traps. The vest was credited with saving his life.

“Fishing has remained on the top 10 list of most dangerous professions for years,” Orchard said. A 2020 report by USA Today listed fishing as the second-most-dangerous profession in America, with 30 deaths in 2018, a rate of 77.4 per 100,000 workers.

“When it comes to mitigating the risk, training is fundamental,” Orchard said. “Training is shown to work.”