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Deaths Prompt Suit : Weather: Accuracy Put to the Test

March 28, 1985|BARRY SIEGEL | Times Staff Writer

BOSTON — When the fishing vessels Sea Fever and Fairwind left Hyannis Harbor near here late on Friday morning, Nov. 21, 1980, the weather forecast called for what are fair conditions in the world of lobstermen--25-knot winds and 5-to-10-foot waves.

But, early the next morning, when they reached their lobster traps 100 miles at sea on the southeast slope of Georges Bank, the lobstermen found themselves in the grip of a monster storm, with winds raging up to 80 knots and black waves cresting at more than 50 feet. Within hours, four crew members in the two vessels were thrown overboard to their deaths.

For commercial deep-sea fishermen who regularly must test the harsh vagaries of nature, it was an all-too-familiar tragedy. But, this time, it drew an unfamiliar response.

Rage at Weather Service

The grieving families of the dead fishermen chose not to rage at the cruel seas but, rather, to rage at the National Weather Service for failing to predict the storm accurately. The families filed lawsuits charging negligence and asked $3.2 million in damages. Last Dec. 21, after a seven-day trial here, U.S. District Judge Joseph Tauro, in a precedent-setting decision, ruled that the federal government was liable for damages. Tauro will decide the dollar amount within weeks.

The matter of Honour Brown et al. vs. United States of America is a singular portrait of the way in which modern technology can affect those as tradition-bound as lobstermen, empowering and enslaving them at the same time. For, according to Judge Tauro's ruling, the lobstermen were doomed not by fate or nature's caprice or their own mistakes but by the trust they placed in a broken wind sensor atop a solitary buoy, bobbing on the open sea 100 miles from shore.

State-of-Art Equipment

There was a time, just 15 years ago, when veteran New England lobstermen such as Robert Brown still put to sea much as they had for decades, relying on instinct, experience, their barometers and the collective wisdom of fellow skippers. Even then, aware of nature's sudden swings in mood, they never strayed more than 15 miles from shore, close enough to retreat to land if the weather threatened.

But, when Robert Brown's son Peter, 28, guided the Sea Fever toward Georges Bank for one last fishing trip before Thanksgiving in 1980, he was equipped with state-of-the-art VHF radios, radar, depth sounders and Loran navigational position finders, which allow masters to plot their course through satellite readings.

Most important, he had a special single-sideband radio capable of receiving weather broadcasts more than 100 miles out to sea, much farther than the normal VHF radio's range, which stops at the horizon. With the guidance provided by the powerful new radio, lobstermen could venture far past the old 15-mile limit. They could follow their prey as the lobsters migrated in winter to the Continental Shelf.

The forecasts Peter Brown could hear on the single-band radio were also far more sophisticated than in the past.

As a result of projects adopted in the mid-1970s by the weather service's parent, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the forecasts were generated by a complex national computer guidance system that draws information from all manner of sources. These include high atmosphere balloons, satellites 22,000 miles above the earth, ships at sea and 38 special buoys that transmit to the computer hourly reports on wind speed and direction, sea-level pressure, air temperature, sea surface temperature and wave height.

As it happened, the particular sensor that measures wind speed and direction on a single North Atlantic buoy had been having trouble for much of 1980. It stopped reporting in the spring, and then the buoy was hit by a vessel in August. At-sea repairs were made on Aug. 11, but the wind sensor failed again on Sept. 6. The troublesome buoy was located at station 44003--Georges Bank.

Three Strongly Worded Memos

During 1980, Rodney Winslow, then the meteorologist in charge of the Weather Service office in Boston, wrote three strongly worded memos to his superiors, reporting the problem, warning of the buoy's importance, and urging repair.

"This buoy is extremely important to us. . . . It serves as one of the few reliable observation points in an area where a tremendous number of fishing vessels operate daily . . . ," he reported. "I urge every effort be made to bring and maintain these buoys on continuous operational status. Must we once again open ourselves to political repercussion because of the failure of an important piece of equipment?"

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