Stability Awareness — Are You Aware?

Fishing vessel-specific stability training is key to keeping your crew safe. U.S. COAST GUARD PHOTO.

Fishing vessel stability is often characterized in foreign and misunderstood terms that describe the constantly changing forces that act upon a vessel while it is at sea.

The wind and waves provide the motion as the vessel rolls, pitches, yaws, heaves, sways and surges. The burning of fuel and use of water changes the internal weights of the vessel and introduces an additional force of free surface effect.

The skipper and crew working hard to move equipment, launch fishing gear, tow nets, haul back the catch, dump it on deck and into the holds adds even more complexity. That’s a lot of dynamic forces going on for a craft at sea.

Add in that fishing vessels are what the Coast Guard considers “uninspected,” so there is ambiguity to what standards, if any, need to be followed, which regulations apply, not to mention the question, “do I need to hire an architect?” And then if something terrible happens, everyone asks “how’d this happen?” This all can be very overwhelming.

This three-part series will uncover some of the big issues surrounding U.S. commercial fishing industry vessels and their stability. It starts with training and how a newly developed curriculum is making a difference. It will lay out the regulations and policies that need to be followed and share some misunderstandings we have seen in the fleet. And then wrap up with operational stability and how things really get complex when vessels are put to use.

Relatable & Relevant Stability Training

It is key is to have fishing vessel-specific stability training. What’s the difference? For most fishermen, it is not expected that they perform calculations to determine their vessel’s stability.  For cargo vessels that have licensed masters, mates and engineers, they routinely perform stability calculations to verify their vessel’s centers of gravity, buoyancy and the righting energy associated with their load of cargo.

Since most folks on a fishing vessel are unlicensed, the regulations allow for a broad range of how stability information is presented, from simple loading charts or diagrams to full-on calculation tables. The premise is that it is presented in a format understood by the owner and the people on board. But that still needs to include some training.

Stability training for fishermen 30 years ago, developed by licensed merchant ship cargo officers, was impractical and written in terms above the level of training of most fishing vessel operators offered at
the time. The course was several days long and included manual calculations to find the centers of gravity, perform weight-moment calculations, take draft readings (hard to do while at sea), sound each tank, etc. Very complicated.

In response to a law change in 2010 that mandated specific training for vessel operators, a new Coast Guard-accepted Fishing Vessel Stability course was developed by Karen Conrad, executive director of the North Pacific Fishing Vessel Owner’s Association (NPFVOA). Jerry Dzugan, executive director of the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association (AMSEA) soon followed suit, and now both organizations offer the new five-hour course tailored specifically for fishermen.

The new curriculum breaks things down into a practical approach to understanding stability.  It starts with the basics of stability and what it is. It covers the regulations – who needs it, what needs to be included and when does it need to be updated. Then it analyzes operational stability and how fishing vessels are constantly changing while at sea. It includes sections on damage control, watertight integrity and icing.

The best feedback received from students has been from doing the exercises involving their own vessel’s stability book. What once was a dizzying book full of numbers and tables, becomes much clearer as they sketch out righting arm curves that visually represents the vessel’s righting energy, based on a specific loaded condition. Seeing that change really opens one’s eyes.

They also pull out critical information by finding the fuel-burn sequence, how much fish the vessel can carry, what is the minimum freeboard, what is the maximum deck load of pots or full cod end, where are the critical downflooding points, how much does the vessel weigh, and could it remain upright and afloat if the engine room flooded?

Icing is an important topic and knowing what is meant when the book says the stability meets icing criteria and how truly limited that information is. An understanding of what changes to a vessel would trigger a stability review or update, such as weight creep, cumulative effects of small changes over time and changes in fishing equipment, is necessary. Also included in most classes are practical hands-on demonstrations using stability models to convey many of the concepts.

All these innovative ideas are leading to a better informed and trained commercial fishing fleet. Feedback has been phenomenal: “This is the best training I have ever had,” “I finally know how to read my stability report” and “Should be mandatory for every skipper” are some of the comments I have heard.

But getting fishermen to participate in something that isn’t mandatory is hard. Since the new curriculum was developed in 2014, NPFVOA has offered 17 classes with 93 students trained and AMSEA has held 22 classes with 142 trained. That averages out to about six students per class.  Even with the high-profile losses of the Destination and Scandies Rose fishing vessels, there was just a small uptick in interest.

The need for required stability training has been recognized by safety organizations and even Congress. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) at a 2010 Fishing Vessel Safety Forum, issued recommendation M-11-24 that states: “Owners, masters and chief engineers of commercial fishing industry vessels receive training and demonstrate competency in stability, watertight integrity, subdivision and use of vessel stability information.”

The NTSB has been critical of the Coast Guard’s inaction on developing implementing regulations. In the wake of the Scandies Rose loss, the NTSB reaffirmed its stance on the recommendation and included it as part of their 2021-22 Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements.  Still, the Coast Guard has failed to promulgate regulations.

So what are you waiting for?  Sign up today.  Bring the owner, skipper, engineer and even the crew. Make an event out of it. 

Next Month: Gaps with stability compliance. A detailed look at what’s required and how many in the industry and regulators are missing the mark.

Mike Rudolph is a Fishing Vessel Safety Examiner and trainer with the U.S. Coast Guard based in Portland, Ore. He is an AMSEA-certified drill instructor and fishing vessel stability trainer. His passion is to help fishermen reduce the risks involved in their occupation so they can return safely to their families or the people that owe them money.

NPFVOA is offering a free Stability for Fishermen class Friday, Nov. 18, 2022 at the Silver Cloud Hotel in Seattle, adjacent to the Pacific Marine Expo. To sign up, contact NPFVOA at (206) 285-3383,, or AMSEA at (907) 747-3287,