Editors, Vineyard Gazette:
A tragedy over the Independence Day holiday involving a 34-foot cabin cruiser in Oyster Bay, N.Y., brings to light a hazard that may not be at the top of every boater’s list of concerns: passenger and load limits.
The investigation into the Oyster Bay tragedy is far from complete; the craft was just raised to the surface last week.
What is known is that the boat was carrying 27 adults and children on an excursion to view fireworks. It overturned and sank, and three children were lost. Along with the number of people aboard, and whether there were enough properly-sized personal flotation devices for each of them, authorities will likely look at factors such as mechanical issues, alcohol consumption, the boat’s operation and environmental variables like the weather, sea state and boat traffic at the time of the accident.
Overloading a boat can indeed be dangerous. And the smaller the boat, the easier it is to become overloaded. Putting too many people and gear aboard reduces freeboard, increases instability and raises the risk of swamping in rough weather. Even in calm waters, an overloaded boat is more likely to capsize, especially if the boat makes an abrupt turn, or if someone on board suddenly shifts position. Unfortunately it is done many times in the down-Island harbors, particularly with inflatable dinghys.
It’s important for any boat owner to know the capacity of his or her craft. In some cases, it’s pretty straightforward; in others, it’s not. Federal regulations require boats under 20 feet to have a capacity plate permanently affixed to the hull by the manufacturer. The label indicates what’s safe to carry in terms of engine horsepower, cargo and passengers. If a capacity plate isn’t present, a publication from the Coast Guard’s Boating Safety Division offers a formula for calculating the maximum number of passengers for a small monohull boat: Multiply the boat’s length by its width and divide by 15.
People who operate small boats should keep within the maximums stated on the capacity plate, and if it’s windy or choppy, stay well under those limits. To make capsizing even less likely, the Coast Guard recommends that loads on small boats be distributed evenly to keep the boat balanced. Standing in small boats, even changing seating positions, can raise the center of gravity and make the boat less stable. The same is true for sitting on the gunwales or seat backs, or on a pedestal seat while under-way. A raised center of gravity means that a wave, wake or sudden turn can cause a person to fall overboard.
Some people recommend putting only as many people on board as you have seats for. But many boats, specifically sailboats, don’t always have designated seats. Some sailors will limit passengers to the number of sleeping berths on the boat — certainly safe, maybe even a bit conservative. A favorite among owners of cruising sailboats in the 30 to 35-foot range is this pragmatic approach that works for both safety and comfort: “She drinks six, feeds four and sleeps two.” Those numbers can be tweaked according to boat size, sea conditions and purpose and length of the trip.
What is indisputable is that boats of any size must carry a properly-sized, wearable life jacket for every passenger, and they work only if people wear them. Here in Massachusetts, children under the age of 12 must wear them at all times while on board. It is also a good idea to have the adults wearing them, too. Boating season on Martha’s Vineyard is now in high gear, and a little knowledge and common sense can help to ensure a safe summer on the water.