PORTLAND, Maine - As his trawler filled with seawater and heaved back and forth in vicious waves, Shawn Rich scrambled to climb into his immersion suit.
The bulky suit proved to be a lifesaver, keeping the fisherman from freezing to death as he was tossed about on the rough seas for three hours, awaiting rescue.
The Coast Guard credits immersion suits as one of the key factors behind a dramatic drop in deaths in the fishing fleet.
The suits are critically important when vessels go down swiftly. Rich testified last week at a formal inquiry into the sinking of his trawler, Two Friends, that he didn't even have time to get the life raft into the water before his 63-foot vessel flooded and capsized.
``People think a boat sinking takes a lot of time but it doesn't. It can happen in less than a minute,'' said Leni Gronros, president of Rockland Boat, the only place in Maine licensed to repair immersion suits.
The Coast Guard has required vessels in cold waters to be equipped with immersion suits since the early 1990s, the same time requirements for emergency locator devices and life rafts went into effect.
Together, those three safety items are credited with saving more than 200 lives since 1993 from Maine to northern New Jersey, said Bob Higgins, a Coast Guard regional fishing vessel safety coordinator in Boston.
The number of deaths in the fishing industry in the region was cut in half in the same period, Higgins said.
The Alaska commercial fishery also has seen a big drop in the number of deaths because of the safety measures.
The death rate associated with vessel losses in Alaska dropped from 27 percent to 7 percent between 1991 and 1998 even though the number of sinkings remained about the same, said Jennifer Lincoln of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
The bulky suits, which sell for $250 to $350, are made for a fishermen to step into while wearing boots and clothes.
The fisherman gets into the one-size-fits-all suit like overalls, puts his arms through the sleeves, pulls up the entry zipper, and then positions a hood and mittens. Air bladders make the suits buoyant, and fishermen are advised to simply float on their backs until help arrives.
Unfortunately, many fishermen have complied with the Coast Guard requirement by tossing the suits aboard a vessel and never thinking about them again, Gronros said.
``It's viewed as a nuisance to a lot of people and that's too bad,'' Gronros said.
Getting into an immersion suit requires practice and suits that are not maintained may suffer from dry rot, leaky seams and zippers that do not work, officials say.
Rich, the only survivor of the three-member crew, testified at the inquiry that the Two Friends began taking on water off Cape Neddick on Jan. 25 and shifted suddenly. Within minutes, it capsized.
Rich managed to climb into his suit but did not get his head covered because his sweatshirt interfered.
The skipper, who died as Rich tried to keep his head afloat, was not able to get one of his arms into his suit. When the body was recovered, one of his arms was in a position as if he had been tugging at the zipper, according to a statement by a Coast Guard swimmer.
The other victim, Rich's father, got into the suit but was caught under the vessel when it capsized, Rich testified.
Stewart Tweed, who works for Rutgers Cooperative Extension, which promotes a safety program in New Jersey, said it's important for fishermen to conduct monthly safety drills.
The two-day course sponsored by Rutgers required fishermen to practice putting on their immersion suits and to get into a pool wearing the cumbersome suits, Tweed said.
``You can have all of the gear in the world, but if you don't know how to use it, it's not useful,'' he said.
The Coast Guard said the inquiry into the Two Friends highlighted some potential problems with immersion suits and there may be lessons to be learned in preparedness, said James Shelton, a Coast Guard spokesman who attended an official inquiry into the sinking.
``That's one of the things that may come out of this, a stepped up approach in terms of training,'' he said.