Coast Guard considering new safety rules for sailing vessels

 As a result of the 2006 fatality aboard the schooner SV Alabama, the U.S. Coast Guard plans to publish a safety advisory and will consider whether to require safety harnesses for sailing-vessel crews who climb rigging.
The Coast Guard ruled that no regulations were violated when an 18-year-old deck hand fell to his death aboard Alabama off Martha’s Vineyard on July 14, 2006.
Benjamin Sutherland was crossing from one mast to another along the spring stay, which is a slightly diagonal wire that connects two masts. Sutherland was gripping the wire with his hands and feet when he fell.
The Coast Guard said it was the nation’s only fatal accident of its kind on a passenger schooner in at least 17 years. Still, a written safety advisory to the industry is in order.
“We do believe that 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,‚¬VbCrLf the Coast Guard wrote in a report released in January.
The 90-foot vessel had departed Vineyard Haven Harbor for a late-morning cruise with 45 passengers. The ship is operated by Black Dog Tall Ships, an affiliate of the famous Black Dog tavern and clothing company.
The nine crew included two trainees and four deck hands. About an hour after departure, Sutherland went aloft and lost his grip.
Sutherland “went aloft for reasons outside of those associated with normal/emergency vessel operations,‚¬VbCrLf the report said. The captain told Coast Guard investigators that his crew needed permission before anyone could climb aloft. The investigators reported that at least three members of the crew they interviewed had never heard of such a policy.
“The practice of laying across the spring stay is an extremely dangerous and unnecessary evolution, especially while the vessel is underway, and without a safety harness,‚¬VbCrLf the Coast Guard wrote. “Although crewmembers were not directed to use the spring stay, it appears the practice was not discouraged and was considered by some crewmembers as a daring accomplishment or rite of passage.‚¬VbCrLf
The Coast Guard called Black Dog’s policies and training for climbing rigging “unstructured and loosely defined, particularly in regard to obtaining permission to go aloft.‚¬VbCrLf
The report recommended that a letter be sent to Black Dog urging the company to give crew specific “aloft procedures‚¬VbCrLf and prohibit the crew from laying across the spring stay.
Black Dog officials said they accepted the Coast Guard’s assessment. A representative at the company’s corporate offices declined to comment further. No one at Black Dog Tall Ships, also known as Coastwise Packet Co., responded to requests for comment.
The investigators’ report recommends that the Coast Guard explore the feasibility of new regulations that would require the use of safety harnesses for schooner crews climbing aloft. The report acknowledges that some sailors regard harnesses as a “hindrance and safety hazard.‚¬VbCrLf

Alabama is classified as a gaff rigged fore and aft schooner. Built in 1926, the vessel originally was used as a pilot launch in Mobile, Ala. The 150-gross-tons vessel lofts 5,000 square feet of canvas. Coastwise Packet acquired the schooner in 1966 and had it refitted as a passenger vessel.

By Professional Mariner Staff