Pontoon safety is under review

Coast Guard re-examines process of certifying boats' seaworthiness

No `Lady D' stability test

March 20, 2004|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

In the wake of the fatal capsizing of a Seaport Taxi in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, the Coast Guard is reviewing the testing process it uses to certify the safety of pontoon boats.

"The Coast Guard, as a whole, in light of this tragedy, is re-evaluating the whole process we use for determining pontoon boat stability," said Lt. Joe DuFresne, chief of small passenger vessel inspections for the Coast Guard's Baltimore area office.

The Lady D, which flipped during a sudden blast of wind off Fort McHenry during a storm March 6, killing five people, never had a stability test, according to Coast Guard records.

Using a now-outdated system, the Coast Guard certified the Lady D's stability in 1996 based on a test performed four years earlier on a boat made by a different company with another cabin design, records show.

Since 2002, the guard's Baltimore office has given every new passenger boat a stability test. During these examinations, barrels filled with water - to simulate passengers - are placed at various locations on a deck to determine how much weight the boat can bear without capsizing.

But now the guard is considering making improvements to its testing procedure, although there is no evidence that the Lady D, owned by the nonprofit Living Classrooms Foundation, was unstable or that it was certified improperly, DuFresne said.

"This is not to say that we believe pontoon boats are unsafe," DuFresne said. "But we are using this opportunity to re-examine our standards for pontoon boats."

As part of its review, the Coast Guard brought another Seaport Taxi, the Patricia P, into the Anchor Bay East Marina in Dundalk on Thursday for retesting, said DuFresne. The guard also plans to retest another water shuttle owned by Living Classrooms, the W.B. Morgan, DuFresne said.

DuFresne would not discuss the results of Thursday's test, saying that information was given to the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the capsizing.

"All of that information is part of the investigation, and when we are finished we will release our results," said NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway.

`The fleet is safe'

Andrew Murray, director of the Living Classroom Foundation's National Historic Seaport of Baltimore, said the organization followed the Coast Guard's rules, which allow a boat to be certified for carrying passengers based on a letter saying the guard performed a stability test on a similar boat.

"We hold a valid Coast Guard stability letter for the Lady D," Murray said. "Yes, we were aware that it didn't have its own stability test. But the letter meets the requirements of the Coast Guard. ... We feel the fleet is safe."

An examination by The Sun of more than 150 pages of documents about the Lady D released by the Coast Guard shows that the guard inspected the boat during its construction by the Susquehanna Santee Boatworks in Willow Street, Pa., in 1996 and annually after that.

These inspections ensured that the boat had safe electrical systems, properly tightened bolts, watertight hulls and enough life preservers, among other requirements.

In March 1996, the Coast Guard approved the Lady D's use as a water taxi, shuttling up to 25 passengers along the Patapsco River from the Inner Harbor to Canton's Tindeco Wharf, records show. In May 1999, the guard performed no additional tests in approving an expansion of the boat's route to Locust Point, near Fort McHenry.

The Coast Guard never gave the Lady D a stability test. It is the only exam designed to see if a boat will capsize if its passengers suddenly shift their weight to one side or if the boat is hit by a strong wind, according to naval architects familiar with the process.

"This is a very important test for determining the center of gravity of the ship," said William Garzke, chairman of the marine forensic panel of the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers. "If the center of gravity is not in the right place, it could be a problem for the ship's stability."

Testing procedures

The test is performed while a boat sits empty at a dock. A Coast Guard inspector calculates how many people the boat is designed to hold, multiplies that figure by an average of 140 to 160 pounds per person, and then places tanks of water or bags of sand in the craft, weighing that amount at various places on the deck, measuring how far the sides of the boat dip into the water.

In some cases, the inspector also uses a formula to calculate how varying strengths of wind would push sideways on the boat's cabin, making the vessel heel over.

Common stability test

Fred Cotey, a pontoon boat designer for Premier Marine of Minneapolis, said it's common among manufacturers of recreational boats to use one stability test to certify hundreds of identical boats made by the same company.

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