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Tom Patton: A Cautionary Tale For Safe Boating

patton-postIt’s May. The boating season is getting into full swing. So while I’m sure it is not intentional, an NTSB probable cause report issued this week serves as a timely reminder about how important it is to operate a boat safely.

I have to admit, I didn’t know the NTSB produced probable cause reports for boating accidents, though I suppose that the fact the accident last year that resulted in five fatalities happened on a federal waterway (the ICW) is why they got involved. I’m pretty accustomed to seeing probable cause reports for aviation accidents, but not for pleasure boating.

Since I don’t know the people involved, I don’t know that, ordinarily, they weren’t very safe boaters. But on this day, they made some very poor decisions. On April 12th, 2009, a severely overloaded boat left St. Augustine with an inexperienced person at the helm. The person who had driven the boat to St. Augustine was too impaired to operate the boat, so in that, they made the right decision. The tragedy that occurred about halfway back to Jacksonville took the lives of 5 of the 14 people on board, and seriously injured the others. The 22 foot bowrider struck the tug of a construction barge that was moored at a dock that was being built by a homeowner. The report tells the story:

NTSB Palm Valley Boat“Because the regular boat operator showed signs of alcohol impairment, several group members objected to his operating the boat. The operator agreed to allow one of the two invited passengers to take his place. After being designated as the operator, the 44-year-old invited woman passenger sat in the operator’s chair on the starboard side of the boat, just aft of the walk-through console. Across the walk-through console from her was another chair, in-tended for a passenger. According to survivors, the regular operator stood next to the designated operator and helped her get the boat under way from the dock. The boat was configured as a “bowrider,” meaning that it had a V-shaped open seating area in the bow, forward of the console, in addition to bench seating near the stern. Thus, passengers seated in front of the console could have obstructed the designated operator’s forward view, giving the standing, regular operator a better view of the waterway ahead.

“Sometime before 1830, as the boat proceeded north in the ICW, two witnesses saw it run aground on a shoal just west of the channel, near day beacon 36 (about 11 miles south of the accident site). Although the witness did not see who was at the helm when the vessel grounded, he observed one of the male occupants in the water pushing on the hull, another male occupant at the helm position, and the remaining occupants shifting position in an apparent attempt to redistribute their weight and facilitate the refloating effort. Within a few minutes, the vessel refloated and resumed its voyage northward. Sometime after this incident, according to survivors, the designated operator resumed her position at the helm while the regular operator stood between the operator’s chair and the passenger chair.

“About 1915, while the boat was traveling north at 25 to 35 mph outside the east side of the ICW’s designated channel (unmarked in the area of the accident), it struck the starboard side of the Little Man II, which was moored to a deck-spud barge3 being used in constructing a private dock. According to measurements made after the accident, the outboard end of the push boat was approximately 23 feet from the east boundary of the unmarked channel. In the seconds before the collision, several witnesses who lived along the waterway south of the accident site noticed a boat carrying a large number of people pass at high speed. Some residents reported hearing a loud noise that led them to investigate further and call 911 to report an accident.”

“The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of the collision of the recreational boat with the push boat Little Man II was the inattention of the boat operators, most likely the result of alcohol impairment on the part of the regular operator and in-experience on the part of the designated operator.”

There were 14 people on this little 22 foot boat. Just as a little background, I’ve operated boats on bodies of water large and small since I was about 5. I’ve owned a 22 foot boat before, and it was crowded with 4 people on board, let alone 14. Granted, it was a little cabin-class day sailor, but still. My current boat is 20 feet, a center console open fisherman. 6 people on board is about the maximum for comfort. Any more than that, and the boat feels overloaded, sluggish, more than I want to deal with. The accident boat had a rated capacity of 1750 pounds, and the 14 people on board were estimated to weigh 2233 pounds. And there couldn’t have been 14 PFD’s on board. It was a recipe for disaster, and a disaster happened.

Push Boat Little Man IIIn aviation, the focus is on safety. Every time FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt speaks, the speech is about safety and professionalism. Now I’ll grant you that when there is a problem with an airplane, it’s potentially a big problem. But there is no similar agency for boating, and I certainly would not advocate that. Boating on this level looks easy because it is, if you apply a little bit of common sense. Driving a boat isn’t rocket science, but it can certainly bite you very quickly, and very hard.

The NTSB report serves as a timely reminder that alcohol on a boat is every bit as dangerous as alcohol in a car, and the penalties are similar. I know someone who was stopped for BWI. He lost his driver’s license for six months, and paid a hefty fine. It’s serious business.

For those of you who are celebrating the hoped-for end of the recession with a new, or new-to-you, boat, make the time to take the Coast Guard basic seamanship course. They’re free, and they’ll give you a break on your boat insurance. Really. Take a couple of weekends and learn the basic rules of the road and boat handling skills before you head out on the water. You’ll be glad you did, and you’ll have far less chance winding up as the subject of an NTSB Probable Cause report.

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