Coast Guard advises small passenger vessels to carry fewer people to reflect weight gains

The Coast Guard is asking operators of small passenger vessels to voluntarily reduce the number of people they carry to reflect the fact that the average weight of Americans has increased.

The Coast Guard is recommending that operators of small passenger vessels use 185 pounds as the average weight when computing their maximum passenger load. That figure compares with the 160-pound average cited in current regulations for small passenger vessels or 140 pounds for vessels that operate exclusively in protected waters.

The new guidelines, announced on April 26 in the Federal Register, are a response to two recent fatal accidents:

• In March 2004, Lady D, a pontoon water taxi carrying 25 people, overturned in Baltimore Harbor while a small craft warning was in effect; five people died and four were seriously injured.

• In October 2005, Ethan Allen, a monohull carrying 49 passengers, sank on Lake George in New York; 20 people, all of them elderly, were killed.

Following the Lady D accident, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommended to the Coast Guard that it begin using an average of 174 pounds per passenger. In announcing the voluntary weight standards, the Coast Guard said that it is working on new obligatory standards to address the stability issues. Because the new rule will still take some time to develop, the Coast Guard decided to release the voluntary rules immediately to provide guidance in time for the peak season.

In developing new standards for small passenger vessels, the Coast Guard is considering economic impact as well as safety issues. The Coast Guard said it expects the new stability rules it is developing to be similar to the voluntary procedures just announced.

In March the NTSB concluded that the use of obsolete weight standards was a contributing factor in the capsizing of Lady D. The Lady D accident investigation determined that overloading of the vessel by more than 700 pounds had “significantly reduced the buoyancy of the vessel, compromising its stability.â€�

The NTSB also recommended that the Coast Guard identify a method for determining the maximum safe load for small passenger vessels at boarding.

The NTSB’s investigation of the Ethan Allen accident is examining whether modifications made to the vessel may have affected its stability. More detailed instructions affecting pontoon vessels “due to their unique stability issuesâ€� have been issued to Coast Guard inspectors, according to Angela McArdle, a Coast Guard spokeswoman.

The Passenger Vessel Association (PVA) in Alexandria, Va., representing smaller commercial passenger vessel operators nationally, had also called for revisions to passenger weight standards. However, it takes issue with possible new restrictions on “vessels that are considerably more capable in their sea keeping abilitiesâ€� than traditional small craft.

The PVA is calling for a longer review period for new regulations and for any new passenger weight restrictions.

By Professional Mariner Staff