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Beware the Ides of October

This is the 50th anniversary of the “Columbus Day Storm,” the most powerful extratropical storm of all time. It is an appropriate moment to contemplate the significance of fall weather patterns to the North Pacific marine industry.

Many years ago, a partner at the maritime law firm of Anderson Carey Alexander was a principal of a tug and barge company. He secured marine insurance for a tug to be operated in Puget Sound. The policy permitted the vessel to trade offshore in the summer, but not after October 15. He remembers the provision well, since the so-called “trading warranty” had to be amended to permit a barge to be towed from Portland, Oregon to Puget Sound in November.

At the time, October 15 seemed to be an arbitrary date. But years of experience have shown that on or about that date every year the weather in the North Pacific changes for the worse. This year is a dramatic example. According to University of Washington meteorologist Cliff Maas, the high pressure area which lingered over the Northwest for months is moving east. Beginning today, October 12, and continuing for the foreseable future, one storm system after another is likely to roll off the Pacific and batter the coast.

Fall can be a dangerous season at sea. Many fisheries are in full swing and mariners are exposed the perils of the sea, even as weather deteriorates with the approach of winter. At Anderson Carey Alexander, we have handled numerous maritime injury and death claims resulting, in part, from the particular perils of autumn.

In 1981, a fish processor returning from the Bering Sea at the end of the salmon fishing season foundered and sank, causing multiple lives to be lost. A couple of months later, a trawler capsized off the Oregon coast, resulting in the death of four crewmembers. Four years ago this month, a 92-foot trawler hurried to Dutch Harbor from the fishing grounds with a boatload of cod, attempting to outrun an approaching storm. The vessel sank under the impact of 55-90 knot winds and seas approaching 40 feet. The result, again, was the tragic death of crewmembers. (In the intervening years, innumerable autumn casualties gave rise to injury and death at sea.)

Marine casualties occur throughout the year, but for the North Pacific fishing fleet the fall seems to be a particularly dangerous season. Mariners are urged to take special care during the shortening autumn days to close and dog watertight hatches, make sure alarms are functioning properly, check out survival suits, rafts and EPIRBs, and generally “batten down the hatches.”

In other words, Beware the Ides of October.

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