Navy accused of thwarting collision probe Dispute arises over ownership of sailboat that sank

September 30, 1992|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Staff Writer

The Navy stymied a Coast Guard investigation into an accident last year in which a million dollar Naval Academy sailboat collided with a coal barge and sank in the Chesapeake Bay, federal documents show.

As a result, the Coast Guard says it abandoned its probe of the sinking of the American Promise and turned its findings over to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which normally depends on the Coast Guard to lead marine accident investigations.

And year and a half later, the NTSB still hasn't completed a report that officials say should have taken less than three months.

Although the Coast Guard suggested in its findings that blame should be divided between the crews of the $1.25 million sloop and the tug boat Sun Coast, which was pushing the barge, the delay might have more to do with a dispute over who owned

American Promise when it sank -- the public Naval Academy or the private Naval Academy Sailing Foundation.

If the sloop was indeed owned by a private corporation -- as the Coast Guard alleges -- it would mean the government would not be able to pay for legal bills and repairs, which alone total $1 million.

"How do you get the boat fixed?" asked Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Michael D. Kearney, chief of investigations for the Marine Safety Office in Baltimore. "Who pays to repair it? Is it the taxpayer or the Naval Academy Sailing Foundation?"

The Navy says it didn't want the Coast Guard involved because under the law, the NTSB is responsible for investigating all accidents between public and private vessels.

"As the Coast Guard well knows," the Navy attorneys said in a March letter to the safety board, "there is no question regarding the ownership and/or public-vessel status of American Promise."

Dodge Morgan of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, donated American Promise to the Naval Academy Sailing Foundation in 1986 after he sailed it on a record-breaking solo voyage around the world. The foundation, which solicits boat donations to the Naval Academy, turned the vessel over to the institution, but retained ownership until nine months after the accident, according to documents on file in the Coast Guard records office in Norfolk, Va.

The vessel sank early on the morning of April 21, 1991, four hours after it collided with a 365-foot Baltimore Gas and Electric barge loaded with 7,500 tons of coal just north of Cove Point near the mouth of the Patuxent River.

According to Coast Guard reports, the barge was heading north from Newport News, Va., to BG&E's Brandon Shores plant. American Promise, which was returning to the Naval Academy from a two-day training mission in the southern bay, was crossing the path of the barge as crew members wrestled with a rigging problem.

The Coast Guard report adds that the tug boat did not sound its horn in time, but it concludes that while both sides share blame for the accident, the Naval Academy crew failed to use "all available means to determine the existence of risk of collision," mainly failure to monitor emergency radio channels.

The Robert Dann Towing Co., owner of the tug boat, argued in separate court papers asking a judge to exonerate the company from liability on grounds that its crew saw the sailboat on radar and called the vessel on two emergency channels, "but got no response."

The documents also described the midshipmen as "confused and distraught, with nobody seemingly in command" after the collision.

Mr. Kearney said his investigators were unable to complete an adequate probe because the Navy wouldn't allow midshipmen to be interviewed the day of the accident.

"While everyone else was talking about the accident while it was fresh in their minds, the Navy personnel were waiting for their attorney," he said.

"Some people might call that obstruction. You could say it was bureaucracy working the way it works. We just wanted to do our job."

Chester J. Szychlinski, a marine accident investigator for the NTSB, would not comment on his conclusions. He did say the report is taking an unusually long time to complete, partly due to delays by the Navy in turning over information.

"It wasn't until January of this year that we got the charts that we were after," he said. "I don't know any reason for it."

He said a 100-page report on a major accident usually takes about 85 days. "They have just made it difficult in getting things, which is a bit awkward," he said.

But part of the delay is due to the Navy's insistence that the Coast Guard not get involved. "They were obstructing the Coast Guard investigation," Mr. Szychlinski said.

And the Coast Guard still insists that it should have been involved because American Promise was a privately owned vessel, according to its documents.

George C. Curran, executive director of the sailing foundation, said the foundation retains title to all donated boats to make it easier for the Naval Academy to sell the boats later by avoiding bureaucratic paperwork involved in a government sale.

But last Jan. 24, the foundation removed itself as the documented owner.

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