A north-east trawlerman has relived the moment he was swept overboard and was “seconds” from death in an effort to get others to take safety at sea more seriously.
John Clark, skipper of Macduff-based Reliance III, broke his arm in three places, shattered his wrist and endured pins, casts and skin grafts during his nine-month recovery following his horror accident.
Now he’s reliving that ordeal as part of the Maritime Coastguard Agency’s industry safety campaign “Man Overboard” in the hope of encouraging higher safety standards on fishing vessels.
“I nearly lost my life”
Mr Clark, 49, has installed a raft of safety measures onto his boat to ensure his six-strong crew never have to go through the same experience as him.
“It happened when a bit of wire that was attached to our net snapped,” he said.
“I was pointing at it and the wire went and wound itself around my arm and pulled me overboard.
“Luckily it was still attached at the other side, and the crew pulled me up with the winch.
“But in a matter of seconds I nearly lost my life.”
The fisherman of 34 years, who featured on the BBC’s Fish Town series, suffered a broken arm in three places, a shattered wrist and lost a lot of skin on his arm.
The accident happened near Rockall, around 300 miles off the west coast of Scotland, and Mr Clark endured a 30-hour journey back to Mallaig before he could be treated at hospital.
“I just super-glued the cuts, wrapped it in clingfilm and steamed in to Mallaig before being taken to Belford Hospital at Fort William,” he added.
There followed a nine month recovery which included multiple operations to pin, set and skin graft his right arm.
And after that 2013 accident, there followed a renewed vigor to improve safety on the boat.
“After that happened to me I said to myself that from now on there would be a much better safety management system on my boat,” Mr Clark said.
“I wasn’t wearing a personal floatation device when I went overboard and when I think about it, that was just so stupid.
“It was a case of milliseconds and that was it. It never leaves you. That accident is always in my mind.”
Campaigning for change
In 2017, a much more safety-conscious Mr Clark built a new boat which is now leading the way in terms of crew safety, and goes above and beyond the existing regulation requirements.
With safety rails all around the boat, the option for crew to attach themselves to harnesses when on open decks and life jackets with build in detectors to inflate them if in water worn as standard, he says his crew are reaping the benefits of feeling safer at work.
He’s also worked with Peterhead engineering firm Thistle Marine to create a 33-tonne winch with safety guards on all sides and an emergency stop which grinds it to a halt in seconds rather than minutes.
“In the fishing industry the amount of winch-related accidents is really unreal,” he added.
“Most boats have a two or three-barrelled winch, the same as were being made in the 1980s.
Dont be that guy that thinks accidents dont happen to them on boats,Risk assess everything wear a PFD with crouch strap,do drills and be aware of whats around you,stay safe,never get into a position where you could Fall or be dragged over the side,I was very lucky #homeanddry pic.twitter.com/FhMUjvBg2S
— john Clark (@jrclarkbf800) May 5, 2021
“The brakes that stop it on my new winch works in seconds whereas older ones require a man with a handle, and that can take five minutes to stop…like something out of the stone age.
“Seven people have lost their lives in the last six months by falling overboard. Too much emphasis is put on how to haul people back from going overboard rather than preventing it happening in the first place.
“The fishing industry is a really dangerous job. I always say to my crew never to get into a position where they have a chance of going over the side.
“They love the extra measures and it gives them peace of mind, especially during the winter. But the industry does need to change.”
Mr Clark is now sharing his experiences with MPs in Westminster and the Fisheries Scotland Group to help shape future safety regulations for the industry. He’s featuring in videos highlighting the risks on the MCA’s website.
The new pioneering winch installed in Reliance III is also a contender for the “new product of the year” at the 2021 Fishing News Awards being held next month.