Authorities scrutinize pontoon boat's safety

Small craft is no match for strong wind, waves, say industry experts

Harbor Tragedy

March 14, 2004|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Federal investigators are still puzzling over what caused a water taxi to capsize in Baltimore's harbor, killing as many as five people. And so is Jeffrey L. Harper, manager of the company that built the boat.

Harper, who runs the tiny Susquehanna Santee Boatworks in rural Lancaster County, Pa., said he is "devastated" about the deaths. He said he believes his firm's pontoon boats are safe and stable when used on the calm, protected waters for which they're designed, but he adds that even the best-made boat can be dangerous if taken out under the wrong conditions.

"A lot of this is the captain's decision. Do you go out in a small-craft advisory? I don't know. I heard there were 4-foot swells out there," said Harper, 41, who works with a handful of craftsmen in a Quonset hut surrounded by a yard cluttered with boat parts and farmlands.

The lingering question about whether the 36-foot aluminum pontoon boat should have been on the water during the fast-moving storm March 5 is key to the National Transportation Safety Board investigation into the fatal accident.

A variety of boat builders and others interviewed by The Sun suggest that there is little inherently unstable about pontoon boats such as the Lady D. But like a canoe or any other kind of small boat, the safety of pontoon boats depends on weather conditions and decisions made by the captain.

Some question whether the boat should have left the dock when storm clouds were moving in. Others suggest the boat was inappropriate for the more open and often windy area of the Northwest Harbor where the capsizing occurred. One boat designer said the box-like shape of the Lady D's cabin, sitting atop a craft with no keel, could have acted like a sail and pushed the boat over.

Lady D

The Lady D is essentially an 8-foot-wide, 8-foot-tall, 36-foot-long box with windows that floats atop a pair of segmented aluminum pontoons. It can carry 25 people on a pair of wooden benches, has a 90-horsepower outboard engine, and is smaller and lighter than other boats made by its manufacturer.

William Garzke, a veteran naval architect who has studied accidents from the Titanic to the sinking of the clam boat Beth Dee Bob off Manasquan, N.J., in 1999, suggested that a pontoon boat the size of the Lady D might have been perfectly safe in the Inner Harbor.

But Garzke said a small pontoon boat is more vulnerable to high winds, such as the those in the blustery area where the Northwest Harbor opens into the Patapsco River.

"That is something that has to be looked at. The route they took, is it a more windy route, and is that appropriate?" said Garzke, chairman of the marine forensic panel of the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers.

James Piper Bond, president of the Living Classrooms Foundation, said that the Lady D had been inspected and certified by the Coast Guard, which had approved the boat's course.

`Reasonable' conditions

The Coast Guard's Feb. 28, 2002, certificate of inspection for the Lady D allowed it to travel from the Inner Harbor to Canton to Locust Point near Fort McHenry -- but only "under reasonable operating conditions" and "not more than 1,000 feet from shore."

Spokesman Lt. Andrew Ely said the Coast Guard does not define "reasonable operating conditions," leaving that as a judgment call for the captain.

"That's why you have the captain there, to make that determination," Ely said.

Lauren Peduzzi, spokeswoman for the National Transportation Safety board, said yesterday that investigators are trying to determine how far out the boat capsized, in part by talking to witnesses and by looking for photos taken after the accident by bystanders and the news media.

Pontoon boats -- sometimes called "party barges" -- have been popular for decades on small lakes because they're inexpensive, with some selling for as little as $4,500 to $13,000. They can support large groups of people, along with grills, stereos, kegs, couches and microwaves.

But the boats are clumsy in the wind and waves, and are not designed for the open ocean or anything like it, according to boat owners and designers.

"They handle terrible, but they are dirt cheap," said James Bass, who operated pontoon boat water taxis for 14 years, from 1987 to 2001, when he owned Bass Marine Taxi of Jacksonville, Fla. "They are like a cork on the water. You have zip amount of control, because they are so light. And having one engine makes them even harder to control."

Safety

Coast Guard statistics show that pontoon boats are among the safest recreational crafts, with 21 deaths in 2002, the most recent year for which data is available. That compares with 423 deaths in open motorboats, 78 in canoes, 71 in personal watercraft and 11 in sailboats that year.

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