Boating lessons

December 22, 2004

FEDERAL INVESTIGATORS have not yet determined what caused a Seaport Taxi to capsize in March during a sudden storm. Five people died in that accident and four others were seriously injured. But a recent report suggests that at least one potential factor can be easily corrected. The Lady D was overweight, the report from the National Transportation Safety Board points out, because while it was certified to carry 25 people, the boat's 25 passengers weighed a collective 4,200 pounds - or 700 pounds more than the U.S. Coast Guard deems safe.

This is a significant finding. It's surprising only because it points out such an obvious flaw in the way the Coast Guard judges the safety of certain types of vessels. The Coast Guard's passenger restrictions are based on a 1960s assessment of weight. The calculation assumes men, women and children weigh an average 140 pounds each. But that fails to account for the nation's obesity epidemic. It's better, the NTSB officials suggest, to assume 174 pounds per passenger.

The Lady D's weight was not necessarily the cause of its disaster, but the 36-foot pontoon vessel was clearly susceptible to being overloaded. The higher the excess weight, the greater the risk it would flip. The boat didn't have too many passengers by Coast Guard standards, but it was too heavy. It doesn't take a rocket scientist - or even a naval architect - to figure out that the Coast Guard's standards need to be revised.

There is plenty of precedent for this in the transportation field. Car manufacturers have gradually been adapting vehicles to accommodate a bigger driver. Airlines are dealing with higher fuel bills, in part because passengers today are an average 10 pounds heavier than a decade ago. American obesity isn't something to be proud of, but it is a fact of life. It has to be factored into the safety design of all forms of transportation.

The Lady D is no longer in service, of course. Cameron Kane, owner of Ed Kane's Water Taxis, says her company doesn't currently operate a pontoon boat like it. But her catamarans now restrict passenger loads from a maximum 64 to no more than 49 passengers. That restriction was imposed by the Coast Guard, and it was a prudent precaution.

Still, the Coast Guard needs to look at the bigger picture - and the hundreds of pontoon boats in commercial use elsewhere. Obviously, boats aren't built alike. But officials can't make assumptions on passenger weight based on 40-year-old statistics. People weigh more these days. For the sake of boating safety, it's time the Coast Guard took notice.

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