I learned to fly a long time ago, starting when I was about 17. I’m been familiar with the NTSB for many years. They investigate every airplane accident, and many incidents. But I never realized before today that they did the same thing for at least some boating accidents. Until today, when I came across an NTSB report on the boating accident last year on the Intercoastal waterway in Palm Valley.
It was a probable cause report.
“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 (NTSB Photo Left). I started boating long before I started flying. 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, an open center console 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. This 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.
So to start out with 12, go out drinking, invite two MORE people on board, and start back up a narrow waterway was just a recipe for disaster. And a disaster happened.
The report reads:
“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 redis-tribute 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, (NTSB Photo Right) 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.”
In 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. 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. And this tragedy, which claimed 5 lives, was entirely preventable.
It’s May. The boating season is getting into full swing. So whether intentional or not, this 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, do us all a favor and 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.