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Ocean Tragedy Puts Onus on Safety : Fishing: Reporter’s presumed drowning on trip heightens awareness of need for proper boating techniques.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Southern California sportfishing is still reeling from the presumed drowning of a passenger on an overnight fishing trip last week off the coast near Morro Bay.

Jim Bertken, 36, outdoor editor of the Los Angeles Daily News on assignment aboard the Marauder out of Paradise Sportfishing in Avila Bay, apparently was swept overboard in heavy seas 60 miles offshore early Friday morning.

A Coast Guard search Friday failed to locate the body and an investigation is under way.

Such incidents are considered rare. But because Bertken was a reporter and because the local media played the story fairly prominently, the issue of safety aboard commercial sportfishing vessels--particularly those on overnight excursions--has become a hot topic.

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Bertken reportedly was suffering from seasickness and had repeatedly gone from his sleeping quarters to the deck, either for fresh air or to vomit.

He was last seen on the deck about 1:30 a.m. by a crew member, who told the Coast Guard that he assumed Bertken had gone back to his bunk afterward.

At dawn, the crew and other passengers realized that Bertken was no longer aboard. He was reported missing at 6:30 a.m., prompting the daylong Coast Guard search.

“This is a terrible, terrible thing,” said John Howell, owner of the vessel. “For us, this will someday go away, but for Jim’s wife [and two young children] it never will. We’re going to do everything we can to make sure it never happens again.”

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But could something have been done to prevent it from happening in the first place? It’s a difficult question to answer.

The skipper of the Marauder was reportedly still distraught about the incident and unavailable for comment, but Howell, who was not aboard the vessel, said the crew told him it had cautioned Bertken to stay off the deck more than once, and instructed him, if he felt he was about to get sick again, to use the head or a bucket.

Bertken apparently didn’t heed the warnings. Anyone who has ever been seriously seasick, however, might relate to his situation, his craving for fresh air and his desire to be alone in his misery.

But given his condition, shouldn’t the crew have kept a closer watch on him?

Coast Guard regulations do not address such situations, but mandate that on excursions where bunks are occupied a “roving patrol” be maintained for the duration for the trip. The regulation is primarily a safeguard against such emergencies as fires.

The Marauder crew told the Coast Guard that a deck patrol was maintained and that the passengers were advised to stay below during the night. That’s standard procedure on overnight boats. So is requesting that passengers use the buddy system if they must go above during the night.

“I tell them nobody on the deck after dark except by twos,” said Bill Poole, 73, a pioneer of long-range fishing out of San Diego and a veteran skipper. “A guy could slip and fall and hit his head and nobody would know it.”

Poole sympathized with the Marauder’s crew to some extent.

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“You try to keep a close watch,” he said. “It could have very well been that he said he was all right and went down below and came up later and fell overboard. You can’t watch [someone] around the clock.”

Poole added that in his 47 years in the business, he has heard of only two others who fell from commercially licensed sportfishers and were lost at sea, one during the day and one at night.

The Coast Guard couldn’t immediately provide figures of man-overboard situations on California-based sportfishers, but Capt. Ed Page, who has 20-plus years’ service and is now based in Long Beach, said such situations are “pretty rare because the [boats] are generally not out that long and don’t spend many nights at sea.”

Page said search-and-rescue operations more commonly involve commercial fishermen who often spend several days at a time at sea.

“And a lot of times [on the bodies recovered], the flies are unzipped because they were relieving themselves,” he said, emphasizing that people with limited means of support, which could include those suffering from seasickness, are particularly vulnerable.

“We hope there are some lessons to be learned here,” Page said. “When we finish the investigation we’re going to pass along some information we hope people will bear in mind. If someone is sick, maybe they should wear a life jacket. . . . And the buddy system is definitely recommended.”

Howell, meanwhile, said Paradise Sportfishing is “instituting internal policies independent of anything that’s going to be mandated” to ensure against similar tragedies.

“No. 1, we’re going to put an extra crew member aboard in addition to what’s required and have someone sitting where he can see people coming in and out of the [sleeping quarters],” he said. “Also, we’re going to elaborate to the passengers how dangerous it can be when it’s pitch black and you have a moving deck beneath you. You lose your equilibrium.”

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Elsewhere along the coast, similar safety precautions are being considered.

“Passengers have a sense of confidence in our fleet, that we’re going to get them out there, get them fish and get them back home safely,” said Bob Fletcher, president of the Sportfishing Assn. of California.

SAC represents 75% of the vessels from Morro Bay to San Diego, keeping their owners and operators updated as to changes in regulations and issues that might effect them. (Paradise Sportfishing is not a SAC member.)

Fletcher stressed that safety has always been important, and that SAC has an excellent safety record. But he added that the recent incident aboard the Marauder drove home the point that skippers and crews can’t take anything for granted.

“This is certainly a tragedy and sometimes, maybe we can benefit by a tragedy,” Fletcher said. “Maybe this will make people more aware of the importance of keeping better track of their operations.”

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Services for Bertken will be held at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Michael Landon Center across from Pepperdine University in Malibu.


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