NTSB cites lack of stability test as factor in sinking of Lake George excursion boat

The excursion boat that sank in Lake George in 2005 with the loss of 20 lives was allowed to operate in an overloaded condition because the state of New York did not require stability tests after the vessel’s structure was modified and because the state relied on outdated average pasenger weights for computing the safe-load limit, the National Transportation Safety Board has concluded.

Twenty elderly passengers died when the 40-foot tour boat Ethan Allen capsized and sank on Oct. 2, 2005, in Lake George. The National Transportation Safety Board said in its marine accident report issued on July 25, 2006, that the accident was caused by insufficient stability that resulted from overloading.

At the time of the accident, the boat was carrying 47 passengers plus the captain. Calculations based on stability tests conducted after the accident indicate that the actual maximum safe load was only 14 passengers, the NTSB said.

“This tragic accident highlights the need for clear requirements to verify a vessel’s stability after any modifications are made to the vessel,” said NTSB Acting Chairman Mark V. Rosenker.

The fiberglass excursion vessel was built in 1964 under a different name for another owner in Connecticut. At that time it fell under U.S. Coast Guard certification requirements and was approved for 48 passengers and two crew. Shoreline Cruises, Inc. of Lake George purchased the vessel in 1979. Once it began operating on Lake George, it came under the jurisdiction of the state of New York. In 1989 Shoreline Cruises extensively modified the boat, adding weight with an all-wood canopy and large, hinged Plexiglas windows along both sides and the forward end.

Since New York State rules “did not contain clear requirements” for reassessment of stability after the boat’s canopy modifications were made, the owner had made no allowance for the structural changes, the report said.

The changes became even more dangerous because maximum loads were being based on average weight standards that no longer reflect reality. “The use of an out-of-date average-weight standard for passengers on public vessels resulted in the Ethan Allen carrying a load that significantly reduced its stability, which made it more susceptible to capsizing on the day of the accident,” the NTSB said.

On the day of the accident, the captain had boarded 47 passengers and then proceeded along the shoreline at approximately 8 mph. He made a turn to starboard and “at the same time the Ethan Allen encountered a wave or waves generated by one or more vessels on its starboard side. Within a few seconds the Ethan Allen rolled to port and overturned. It began to sink several minutes later,” according to the NTSB.
Recreational boats nearby and emergency craft that responded rescued the survivors in the water but some passengers were trapped within the canopy when the boat sank. Twenty passengers died, three sustained serious injuries and six received minor injuries. The operator and 18 passengers were unhurt.

The NTSB concluded, “The attempt of the Ethan Allen operator to turn the vessel into the on-coming wake before capsizing was a normal reaction to the circumstances, but not timely enough to be effective.”

The probable cause of the capsizing, the NTSB said, was “the vessel’s insufficient stability to resist the combined forces of a passing wave, a sharp turn, and the resulting involuntary shift of passengers to the port side of the vessel.”

Richard O. Aichele

By Professional Mariner Staff