A fatal accident aboard the schooner Alabama during a day sail out of Vineyard Haven in the summer of 2006 involved no violation of U.S. Coast Guard regulations, a report by Coast Guard investigators has found.
Issued by the Coast Guard on Jan. 18 and released to the press this week, the report is the result of a detailed investigation into events aboard the Alabama on July 14, 2006, when an 18-year old crew member fell 30 feet from the rigging to the deck. Benjamin Sutherland of Concord later died from his injuries. The Alabama is a 90-foot gaff-rigged pilot schooner with more than 5,000 square feet of sail, owned by Coastwise Packet Co. Devoted primarily to educational seagoing experiences for youth groups and adults, the vessel complement includes a captain, first mate and a crew of six. Forty five passengers were on board at the time of the accident, including 15 from Focus Study Center, a religious summer camp for young teens in Lambert’s Cove in West Tisbury.
Coastwise Packet is owned by the Robert Douglas family, which also owns the schooner Shenandoah.
The 38-page report recommends additional safety procedures for Alabama’s owners and also recommends publication of a safety advisory for all sailing ships of that class. The Coast Guard panel sent a letter in January 2007 to Alabama owners recommending “the implementation of written policies regarding aloft procedures to clearly communicate aloft expectations to crew members and [to] prohibit the practice of ‘laying across the spring stay line.’ ” The spring stay line is a rigging line connecting the masts of the mainsail and the foresail on two-masted vessels.
Mr. Sutherland, who had graduated from high school and was working on board the Alabama that summer, was crossing the spring stay line by hand when the fatal accident occurred. The report noted that neither Capt. Morgan Douglas nor other ship officers had instructed Mr. Sutherland to be in the rigging. The accident occurred when the vessel was underway in calm seas at 11:30 a.m. on a warm summer day.
“No regulatory requirements were violated,” the report concluded. It also added: “Training policies and company policies for going aloft appear to be unconstructed and loosely defined, particularly in regards to obtaining permission to go aloft.”
While Captain Douglas and the first mate told investigators that crew members were instructed to ask for permission before climbing the rigging, three crew members, one in her first week on the job, told Coast Guard investigators that they were unaware of a ship policy that required asking permission to go aloft.
“Typically, operational evolutions requiring going aloft are limited to the removing of gaskets for setting sails and the securing of sails,” the report said. The tasks usually are performed while the vehicle is at rest, the report noted, a sentiment echoed by a 10-year charter passenger who was aboard and told investigators he had witnessed crew members climbing across the spring stay on several occasions but that the procedures appeared to be disciplined and safety-oriented.
The report noted that the practice of crossing the spring stay is evidently considered a rite of passage by some crew members in addition to the functional aspects of the task. “According to all witness statements, Mr. Sutherland went aloft for no apparent reason,” the report said.
A telephone call to Capt. Morgan Douglas was not returned yesterday.
Coast Guard chief warrant officer Michael Fincham, who conducted the investigation, is at sea until March 25 and was unavailable for comment. His colleague in the Providence southeast sector coast guard office of investigations, Lieut. Phillip Wolf, said investigations involving fatalities always receive close scrutiny. “With major marine casualties, such as a death in this case, we do causal analysis to look for unsafe practices. We analyze the details of the event to see for example, whether poor implementation of a good policy might have occurred or good implementation of a bad policy, that sort of thing. We really get into the weeds and hopefully prevent the same from happening again,” he said.
As a result of the fatality, the first of its type between 1991 and 2007, the Coast Guard said, Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C., has issued a safety advisory relating to the use of fall protection gear aboard sailing vessels. On Jan. 18, Commandant David W. Deaver said, “While we do not believe that new regulations are justified, we do believe it would be beneficial to crew safety on small sailing passenger vessels to highlight the dangers of going aloft on these vessels without fall protection gear.”