Tour boat with Christmas lights struck by Coast Guard patrol boat

U.S. government agencies are investigating why a U.S. Coast Guard boat slammed into a Charleston, S.C., tour boat, which featured decorative lights because it was on a holiday cruise.

Three passengers on the tour boat were injured. The incident resulted in a Coast Guard safety alert warning mariners not to illuminate decorative lights on vessels while underway.

On Dec. 5, 2009, a 25-foot Coast Guard response boat struck the starboard side of the high-speed tour boat Thriller in Charleston Harbor. The 55-foot power catamaran had a hole in its hull midships, and some seats were knocked off their bases. The accident happened at 2030, south of the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge in the Crab Bank area on the way to Shem Creek.

Neither the Coast Guard nor Thriller’s operator would comment on which direction each vessel was headed. Some of Thriller’s 24 passengers told investigators that they saw the Coast Guard boat barreling straight for the tour boat, and someone yelled, “It’s going to hit us!†Thriller may have attempted a turn to port at that moment, exposing its starboard side.

Coast Guard spokeswoman Petty Officer 3rd Class Cindy Beckert said Thriller had decorative lights, but investigators weren’t sure if those lights had fooled the response-boat operator.

The Coast Guard boat was moving at about 25 mph, she said. Weather was clear, with 10 to 15 mph winds.

“Since the Thriller was on a Christmas tour, they had white lights wrapped around their hull,†Beckert said. “That’s a violation of navigation rules, but it’s still under investigation. When you’re transiting the water, you shouldn’t have white lights on your vessel, but we still don’t know if that was a factor yet.â€

The 43-passenger Thriller has been operated since 2008 by Foxrose LLC, doing business as Pegasus Charters. The SuperCat 55 variation is billed as “the fastest public tour boat in the harbor.†Home-ported at Ripley Point, it is captained by Coast Guard-licensed personnel, the company said.

Thriller’s speed at the time of the accident was not available. The vessel was in the midst of a special “Charleston Sleigh Ride,†which is slower than its normal tours. Guests are given blankets and hot chocolate and they sing Christmas carols while gazing at lights around the harbor.

“We were struck by a Coast Guard boat during our Sleigh Ride,†the company said in a statement on Facebook. “No one was seriously injured. Our boat, however, is not in good shape and needs to be repaired and recertified before we can operate again.â€

In a subsequent interview, co-owner Barbara Fox said it’s customary for mariners to display holiday lights during the Charleston Parade of Boats, which was earlier that evening.

“We had white lights around our boat, but so do hundreds of other boats during the holiday season,†Fox told Professional Mariner before the Coast Guard issued its safety alert. She declined further comment on the crash.

The safety warning was issued Dec. 21 by the Coast Guard’s Office of Investigations and Analysis. The alert’s text emphasized that investigators had not yet found fault in the case.

“The Coast Guard recognizes that many vessel owners choose to place decorative lights onboard their vessels during the holiday season,†the safety alert said. “The Coast Guard strongly reminds vessel owners not to illuminate such lights during routine navigation unless operating in a holiday boat parade or when the vessel is secured dockside.â€

In this case, the vessel operator had placed a string of holiday light-emitting diodes (LEDs) around the hull, the Coast Guard said.

“The LEDs were contained in a clear flexible hose and securely attached,†the alert said. “Near the bow of the vessel the lighting was adjacent and slightly above the port and starboard navigation lights. At night this installation can impair the ‘distinctive character’ of the navigation lights.â€

The tour vessel had a side light navigation fixture that was stamped with a 1-nm range. The rules for such a vessel require that side lights have a 2-nm range, the alert said.

Beckert said everyone passed alcohol tests. Drug tests results were not yet available. The National Transportation Safety Board is also investigating the accident. Fox said she planned to repair Thriller by Charleston’s spring 2010 tourist season.

Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff