Coast Guard suspends captain’s license after close call with rowers


An Oregon excursion boat captain already on probation following a 2015 incident has again had his license suspended by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Capt. Lowell Gillespie Jr. was steering the 150-foot Portland Spirit back to the company dock in downtown Portland at 1537 on Oct. 29 when the boat nearly hit two rowing shells on the Willamette River. The coxswain on each vessel turned sharply to port to avoid a collision, U.S. Coast Guard investigator Travis Nolen said. Gillespie never sounded a horn, reduced speed or changed course.

“He had other options to go upriver and cross or wait for those two racing shells to pass,” Nolen said of Gillespie.

A Coast Guard administrative law judge on Dec. 11 suspended Gillespie’s merchant mariner credential for 90 days. Gillespie admitted negligence in connection with the incident during the Portland Fall Classic competition.

Portland Spirit Cruises and Events, which operates Portland Spirit, separately suspended Gillespie for 90 days. Sanctions also are possible against the race organizers for running the event past the hours specified on their Coast Guard-issued permit.

Dan Yates, president of Portland Spirit Cruises and Events, noted that the incident occurred more than an hour after the race was slated to end. He also raised questions about a lack of communication between rowers and commercial traffic on the river.

“Capt. Gillespie had crossed the course several times that day doing his lunch cruise and had no problem because the racers were spaced out in one-minute intervals for each race,” Yates said. “He did not realize that the race organizers decreased the race intervals to 15 seconds. Hence, he crossed behind some racers and did not realize he created the problem with the next group of racers.”

The rowers never came within 100 feet of the boat, Yates said. Even so, he said Gillespie “should have used better judgment.”

Coast Guard COLREGS are silent on this specific scenario because rowing shells are not motorized vessels. Had they been motorized, Portland Spirit would have been the give-way vessel, Nolen said. In this section of the Willamette, Portland Spirit was not restricted to a navigation channel.

“As per navigation rules, the master had the responsibility to not only avoid a collision, but also to alter the course or speed of Portland Spirit in order to not impede the passage or safe passage of the rowers,” the Coast Guard said when announcing the suspension.

The incident came two years after Portland Spirit bumped several recreational boats during a Red Bull Flugtag event in Portland that blocked much of the Columbia River. In August, a Coast Guard administrative law judge determined Gillespie failed to take appropriate steps to avoid the low-speed collisions.

The judge suspended the captain’s license for a month and placed him on probation for a year. Gillespie was roughly six weeks into his probationary period when the incident with the rowers occurred.

Yates isn’t sure if Gillespie, 82, will return to work or retire after serving his suspension. He could not be reached for comment.

By Professional Mariner Staff