Suit claims Coast Guard boats were racing before collision with Charleston tour boat

A December 2009 collision in South Carolina involving a U.S. Coast Guard response boat and a commercial tour boat after a holiday parade happened while the Coast Guard boat was racing a sister vessel through Charleston Harbor, according to a federal lawsuit.

The owners of the tour boat Thriller 09 allege that the Coast Guard crews were racing at an "excessive speed" in violation of the law. The Coast Guard's 25-foot response boat CG 25689 broadsided the 55-foot Thriller 09, injuring six of the tour boat's 22 passengers.

The response boat's bow struck the tour vessel's starboard side at about an 80° angle, according to a 2011 National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report. A two-person crew was aboard Thriller 09.

The high-speed catamaran had damage to its starboard side including hull cracks and framing fractures, and two rows of seats partially detached from the deck. CG 25689 had a torn bow cover and a scuffed beaching plate.

In December 2011, Thriller 09 operator Foxrose LLC, doing business as Pegasus Charters, filed a lawsuit against the Coast Guard in U.S. District Court. Alleging gross negligence, the complaint said CG 25689 was operated unsafely and electronics screens were set at a brightness that interfered with the crew's vision.

The two "vessels were racing each other through the channel, knowing there were recreational vessels out," the lawsuit said.

CG 25689 and identical response boat CG 25788, both with three-person crews, had just finished providing a security escort for the car carrier Green Ridge out to sea past Fort Sumter. The collision happened at 2028 in clear skies.

"The defendants brought their vessel through the Charleston Harbor without keeping a proper lookout and while talking on their cellular phones," the lawsuit said. The CG 25689 crew "operated their vessel on the water in a dangerous condition, i.e., interior screens so bright they prevented the crew from being able to properly see and observe navigational obstacles."

The NTSB's 19-page report includes no mention of racing between the two Coast Guard vessels on their way back from the escort. Neither do any witnesses' statements in the public docket.

The plaintiff's lawyer, Jarrel Wigger, told Professional Mariner that at least one unspecified witness with knowledge of the Coast Guard boats' operation had come forward.

The NTSB investigators attributed the collision to a finding that the crewmembers who could have been lookout were performing other tasks. The Thriller 09 deck hand was looking over her tour-narration notes. On CG 25689, the gunner in the fore lookout's seat had turned around to make a radio call to Green Ridge.

"The probable cause was the inadequate lookout by the crewmembers of both vessels, given the speed at which they were operating and the nighttime conditions," the NTSB wrote.

The Coast Guard denies the racing allegation and blames the accident on the tour boat.

"Thriller crossed the channel without slowing down and properly checking for other vessels and proceeded without caution and without radar," spokesman Lt. Patrick Montgomery said. He said the CG 25689 crew had their qualifications rescinded but have since re-qualified and returned to duty.

The Thriller 09 captain told the NTSB that his boat was sailing at about 21 knots. The Coast Guard vessel was doing about 25 knots.

The Dec. 5, 2009, accident was cited as an impetus for multiple safety alerts to the industry and for a Coast Guard review of its small-boat operations. The Coast Guard revamped policies, practices, supervision and training as a result of the Charleston Harbor casualty, plus a fatal collision involving a Coast Guard law-enforcement vessel and a pleasure boat during a holiday boat parade in San Diego, Calif.

NTSB investigators found that the CG 25689 crew had used personal mobile devices, but not at the moment of the collision. The Coast Guard has since disallowed its crews from making personal cell phone calls and texting while underway — and later urged commercial operators to consider similar policies. The NTSB issued recommendations on the dangers of mobile phone use.

The NTSB report said Thriller 09 was equipped with navigation sidelights that were visible at a 1-nm range instead of the required 2 nm. A string of decorative holiday lights had been added around the tour boat's hull. After the accident, the Coast Guard issued a safety alert urging vessel operators not to illuminate holiday lights during routine navigation.

Wigger said the Coast Guard pursued administrative action against the tour boat captain's merchant mariner license. He said the Coast Guard, in particular, should not make an issue of Thriller 09's lights.

The captain "had a string of LED lighting on his boat and it went down both sides. I did some testing and we found that it actually made (the boat) more visible, and the Coast Guard had approved it with the (1-nm range) lights on it and approved the permit for the Parade of Boats," Wigger said. "We think they should have been on the lookout for boats with irregular lighting."

Repairs to Thriller 09 cost $94,300, not including transportation and storage costs, according to the NTSB report. The plaintiffs said they suffered from lost business and face personal injury claims.

By Professional Mariner Staff