Inquiry looks at boat design

Safety board is focusing on 2-hulled Lady D, may expand pontoon study

Coast Guard had certified craft

Harbor Tragedy : The Search

March 09, 2004|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

SOME OTHER WATER TAXI SERVICES — Federal investigators looking into Saturday's fatal capsizing of a water taxi on Baltimore's Inner Harbor are examining the design of the two-hulled Lady D and may study the safety record of similar pontoon boats nationally.

Some other water taxi services - including those in Delaware, Chicago, Boston Harbor, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Vancouver, Canada - use larger, conventional-hulled boats, which some captains consider more stable in high winds and choppy waters than smaller boats with raised platforms atop pairs of torpedo-shaped floats.

The 36-foot pontoon boat that flipped in a sudden burst of wind near Fort McHenry, killing one person and leaving three presumed dead, had been inspected by the U.S. Coast Guard and certified as safe for that route, according to Coast Guard officials.

Lauren Peduzzi, a spokeswoman for the National Transportation Safety Board, said information about pontoon boat accidents nationally isn't immediately available because the agency doesn't keep the same kind of databases for boating accidents that it maintains for plane crashes.

"We are looking at that," Peduzzi said regarding the design and safety of the pontoon boat. "If the design of this boat turns out to be an issue with this accident, then we'll look at pontoon boats in general. But right now, we are looking at this boat in particular and haven't reached any conclusions yet."

Investigators are also looking at a wide variety of other issues, including weather conditions, the condition of the boat and the training of the crew, according to NTSB officials.

Passenger boat operators in other cities said they often decide against using small pontoon boats because they perform best in small lakes and flat water, and don't handle wind and waves as well as boats with standard V-shaped hulls that have keels to stabilize them.

The New York Water Taxi and a ferry service along the south shore of Boston use two-hulled boats, but they are high-speed catamarans and much larger, heavier and more powerful than the 2-ton Lady D that shuttled around Baltimore's Inner Harbor, according to information provided by operators in New York and Boston.

Bob Bekoff, owner of the 16-year-old Water Taxi Inc. of Fort Lauderdale, said he decided against using pontoon boats because he thinks they don't handle choppy conditions well. Instead, he uses conventional-hulled boats that are 42 feet long and weigh 11 tons - more than five times the weight of the Lady D.

"I would have used a more seaworthy boat to go out to Fort McHenry, not a pontoon boat," Bekoff said.

James Piper Bond, president of the Baltimore-based Living Classrooms Foundation that operates Seaport Taxi and the Lady D, defended his organization's use of pontoon boats, which he said are safe and reliable.

"They are stable boats that are more comfortable than others, and they can also accommodate wheelchairs and strollers," Bond said. "The bottom line is that they are Coast Guard-certified vessels that are inspected and approved for that route."

Bond added that while conventional-hulled craft might handle rough waters and large wakes better in places such as New York, Boston or Fort Lauderdale, it's like "apples and oranges" to try to compare those more open harbors to the usually calm, sheltered waters of the Inner Harbor.

"One of the advantages of pontoon boats is if they do capsize - God forbid - they don't sink, which is what we saw the other day," Bond said. "With a mono-hulled boat, that might not be the case."

Cameron Kane, whose 13-boat Water Taxi fleet competes with Bond's service around the Inner Harbor, said her company uses nine conventional-hulled craft and four pontoon boats, although the company's two-hulled craft are significantly larger - at 64 feet in length - than the Lady D.

"You can't make generalizations and say pontoon boats are more or less safe than conventional-hulled boats," Kane said. "You could have a pontoon boat that you couldn't tip over unless Moby Dick came up under it."

Officials at the company that built the Lady D, the Susquehanna Santee Boatworks in Pennsylvania, did not return a call seeking comment.

The company's Web site lists the names and phone numbers of "customer references," organizations that bought its pontoon boats to use as passenger vessels. When contacted by The Sun, officials with the first two organizations said they were no longer using the pontoon boats as water taxis because they didn't handle wind or choppy water well.

Jim Salmon, public information officer for the Delaware River and Bay Authority, said his agency bought a 47-foot pontoon boat from Susquehanna Santee for $130,000 in 1999 to use as a water taxi on a run from Fort Delaware to Pea Patch Island and Delaware City. But the authority later concluded that the pontoon boat couldn't handle the wind on the Delaware River as well as a 55-foot-long boat with a conventional hull. Since 2002, the pontoon boat has been off the water and up for sale, Salmon said.

"Pontoon boats are more made for lake-type uses," Salmon said. "The current and wind can get quite strong on the Delaware."

Massachusetts Bay Lines of Boston bought a 47-foot pontoon boat from Susquehanna in 1997 to provide tours in Boston Harbor. But the company stopped using it two years ago because the boat couldn't handle waves and was too small, said Ed McCarthy, a captain with the company. Now the boat is for sale, and the company uses only conventional-hulled boats.

"We don't use the pontoon boat anymore," McCarthy said. "Going up the coast in it wasn't a real pleasant experience. We were getting waves washing through the boat from one end to the other."

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