Making a Living in the Wake of the Pelican Disaster
From the Wikipedia entry:
On September 1, 1951, as the Fisherman’s Special emptied its passengers, 62 fares climbed aboard the PELICAN, plus its Captain, Eddie Carroll and mate. The 42 foot PELICAN left Fishangrila at 7:30 AM, carrying 64 passengers and crew, which was grossly in excess of its safe carrying capacity.
By the time the PELICAN was towed back to Montauk later that night she was capsized and half-sunk. 45 of the 64 souls who departed on her that morning were dead, including her skipper. An excerpt from the original US Coast Guard Marine Safety Board report on the incident:
“45. The board is of the opinion that interest developed in this case because of the large number of lives lost and the clear-cut issue as to the decisive cause of the disaster — the overloading of the PELICAN with resultant loss of 45 lives (this under the sole responsibility of the operator who had complied with all effective laws but nevertheless as a result of poor judgment or ignorance was not prevented from taking risks which resulted in loss of life) — should be used to bring to the attention of the appropriate committees of Congress the loop-holes and unsatisfactory provisions of the present laws which permit these conditions to exist.
“46. The board is of the opinion that the most important single provision of the law which permitted the overloading of the PELICAN is the exemption of vessels under 15 tons from the provisions of the inspection laws which would have limited the passenger carrying capacity of the PELICAN on the basis of deck space available, with due consideration for the vessel’s stability further, the inspection law would have required the stowage of life preservers to be marked and to come under specific requirements as to the accessibility of life preservers, rather than the more general and less effective provisions of the motor boat laws under whose provisions the PELICAN operated.
“47. The board is of the opinion that legislation intended to prevent the recurrence of a disaster like the PELICAN should be carefully considered so that it does not become an onerous burden to the thousands of owners of smaller craft nor on the administrative agencies charged with administering the law. A law which is too broad in its scape and whose provisions are not carefully considered may do little to improve conditions because of public resistance to controls not demonstrably necessary for safety, aggravated be the administrative overloads which may be placed on presently fully employed staffs.
“48. The board is of the opinion that the extension of the present inspections powers of the Coast Guard, intended to correct this situation, should be limited to vessels carrying passengers for hire.
“49. The board is of the opinion that vessels carrying a limited number of passengers should be exempt from the new provisions of the law.
“50. The board is of the opinion that the cut-off point between exempt and non-exempt vessels not be on the basis of tonnage but should be on the basis of the number of passengers carried. The exemption on the basis of tonnage is completely unrealistic in that it places no restriction on the number of passengers that may be carried on a smaller and presumably less capable vessel while it does restrict the number carried on the larger and presumably more capable vessel.
In 1957, “T-Boat” regulations where put into effect. “T-boat” because the rules covering them our laid down in subchapter T of Title 46 of the Code of Federal Regulation. From that point forward, vessels carrying seven or more paying passengers became subject to rigorous federal oversight (via the Coast Guard) for their design, construction, outfitting, and operation. Revisiting my first post here at The League, Feasibility, Normalization, Carbon Footprint, and Buyer Beware:
Or put another way, the Coast Guard is saying: Six pack is kind of a wild-west, seat of the pants designation. It puts most of the burden on the skipper to maintain his vessel and operate it properly, and on his paying customers to exercise their judgement about whether or not they should even step aboard in the first place. And whatever happens, people are only going to get killed six at a time.
By contrast, an Inspected Vessel is more like a Greyhound bus. When you get on a Greyhound bus, you don’t think “Gee, I hope the tires are properly inflated. I wonder if the brake system has been properly maintained? I wonder if the chassis is rusting out? I wonder if the driver knows how to drive this model of bus?” No, you expect that someone is looking after these things, and you expect that there’s some sort of regulatory regime making sure they are. The transportation system simply couldn’t work if you had to do your own”due diligence” every time you hopped on a bus, jumped in a cab, or climbed aboard an airplane.
Last Summer I ran our sloop S/V INTEMPERANCE as an Uninspected Passenger (six-pack) Vessel. My USCG Master Captains license qualifies me to run inspected boats, but the economies of scale to have INTEMPERANCE surveyed and outfitted in accordance with Inspected Passenger regulations don’t pencil out, so we ran her as a six pack.
That meant our regulatory overhead was low, but our earnings were limited, and demand for our outings exceeded what we could offer. We regularly turned away larger groups, or declined to add passengers to our trip roster when adding them would have put us over our six passenger limit.
Buoyed by optimism about our business prospects, we’ve decided to step up our efforts. Mon Tiki, the 40′ catamaran we’re building this Winter, is being built and will be operated as a USCG Inspected Passenger Vessel. Here’s what that means from a practical standpoint:
The design we selected, a JWD Tiki 38, is a proven passage maker. When built in accordance with the designers specs, the design has already proven itself capable of crossing oceans and of standing in fierce weather. None-the-less, the regulations have obliged us to make significant additions to her scantling (that’s boat-design speak for the number and size of her structural members). Doing this work involved engaging a marine architect and engineer and then presenting our proposed changes to the USCG Marine Safety Center for review by their naval architects.
We are obliged to use engineering-grade materials: BS 1088 marine plywood, vertical-grain lumber and aero-space epoxy. In the case of our plywood, we used a less well-known species that our testing showed to be stiffer and stronger (as well as more rot resistant, and less costly) than the more common alternatives. But there are no published materials behavior data for the plywood we selected, so we were obliged to send a sample out to an ASTM-certified materials testing laboratory to have our result confirmed. (They were.)
Our build-site is visited weekly by a Coast Guard inspector to ensure we are building our vessel using the approved materials, in accordance with our Marine Safety Center approved plans, and using best practices in our execution.
Once afloat, we are obliged to have in places a host of safety measure well above and beyond what is required for pleasure boat or six-pack boats. This covers railing heights, passage-ways, life-saving equipment, communications equipment, fire-suppression equipment; and regular drills to ensure the captain and crew all know how to respond in the event of an emergency.
While in operation, our vessel will be subject to regular inspection for how she outfitted and operated, and also her structural fitness for service.
Of course no regulatory scheme is perfect. The rise in popularity of day-charter catamarans has exposed vulnerablities in the regulatory regime. From the USCG Summer 2011 edition of Proceedings:
Two separate dismastings involving commercial sightseeing catamarans in Hawaii turned exhilarating vacation experiences into shocking and traumatic tragedies, as each resulted in one passenger being killed and several others injured. Occurring within four months of each other, the incidents prompted the Coast Guard to initiate a comprehensive state-wide safety compliance check of all commercial sailing vessels certified to carry passengers in Hawaiian waters. The investigations into the causes of the mast failures also led the Coast Guard to make significant recommendations to prevent this type of incident. The two events involved the Na Hoku II (catamaran 1) on December 1, 2006, and the Kiele V (catamaran 2) on March 25, 2007. In the case of catamaran 2, the vessel swamped and eventually sank. Both catamarans were filled with sightseeing passengers returning from afternoon excursions. The wind and weather conditions were similar in both cases—sunny with gusty winds of 20–25 knots, and swells between three and five feet. Though both vessels had a history of problems, each had passed recent inspections, so their certificates of inspection (COIs) were valid at the time of their respective dismastings. This fact and the subsequent Coast Guard investigations led to two main conclusions:
· National standards for masting and rigging need to be developed (at the time of the casualties there were none).
· Training of inspectors needs to be improved so that inspectors can recognize if sailing equipment is in good condition and the mast and rigging sail plan meet minimum design and construction standards.
At the time of the Pelican tragedy, catamarans were almost unheard of, let alone used in commercial passenger work. Even as late as the 1980s, they were regarded as unorthodox and even dangerous (“Yes, very very stable right side up; but also very stable upside down.”)
But thanks to the pioneering work of James Wharram (our project designer, btw) and John Marples (our project engineer, btw) and others, catamarans have entered the fold. There are high-speed catamaran ferries, and catamaran day-charters are in service in nearly every major tropical resort around the world.
But as the fatal rigging failures cited above illustrate, sailing catamarans have their own special vulnerabilities.
Where as a monohull can absorb excess energy by heeling (being pushed over by the wind, absorbing energy by cantilevering the ballast in her keel,) a catamaran cannot. As Bernd Kohler, a Swiss multi-hull designer puts it, “When hit by a gust, a catamaran can only do three things: accelerate, break, or flip. Speed is a catamaran’s only defense.” The same extraordinary stability and lack of heeling that makes them so popular with lubberly tourists also places much more strain on the boat and the rigging.
Mon Tiki addresses this vulnerability in three ways; two traditional and one traditional with a space-age twist:
Mon Tiki’s design inspiration for her hull comes not from high-strung, speed-record-setting multi-hulls, but from the voyaging canoes Polynesians used to settle Oceania. These boats are narrower than western racing catamarans, have modest sailplans, and their hulls are lashed, rather than rigidly connected. In concert, this produces lower stresses, and the stresses are absorbed into the boat gracefully. Additionally, stress points are external and easily inspected and replenish, rather than concealed and only making themselves known when a severe problem develops. Mon Tiki will be the first USCG Inspected Passenger Vessel featuring this arrangement.
Mon Tiki will be rigged not in the ubiquitous sloop configuration (one triangle sail in front of a single mast and one behind it), but as a gaff-rigged schooner (two mast, one triangle sail all the way forward, and a four-sided sail flying abaft of each mast. By flying our sails in this way, we break the sails into smaller, more managable sections. This also brings the sailplan lower relative to the center of mass of the vessel. This significantly reduces strain on the rig.
Lastly, Mon Tiki will not use stainless steel for her rigging, she’ll use rope, or at least that what we’re hoping. Using rope rigging means a lighter, stronger, less complicated (as in fewer failure points), corrosion-free rig that we can fabricate and repair ourselves; rather than a heavy, brittle, expensive, fatigue-failure vulnerable, corrosion-prone rig.
Rope has been used for rigging for most of sailing history, but presently using rope in the place of wire is regarded as novel. So like our stiffer, stronger, more rot-resistant, less expensive plywood, we’re going to have to make an engineering presentation to the USCG Marine Safety Center to convince them that our rope solution is as strong and safe as stainless steel. Recent developments in fiber technology give us a strong case, and the Coast Guard has so far been receptive to our ideas, But they are famously conservative, and as you might expect, after the recent fatalities, catamaran rigging is a hot-button issue. Just in case, we already have a “traditional” stainless steel rigging option designed.
When I made my love and sex documentaries, I spent a fair amount of time thinking about how to make the movies I wanted to make while exposing my subjects to as little risk as possible. But in a decade of making those movies, the total number of people who found themselves in front of my camera numbered barely over a dozen. When Mon Tiki is launched a single trip during the high season will likely have that many aboard, and by season’s end, we hope to have had 2,000 people or more in our care.
That can be a sobering thought, and it should be. You can’t throw bull with the ocean – she won’t listen.