Alabama Crew Member Falls to Death on Board Tall Ship Off West Chop


A crew member working aboard the tall ship Alabama fell to his death on Friday morning while the ship was heading out on a day sail.

Benjamin Sutherland, 18, of Concord, was aloft in the rigging 30 feet up when he apparently slipped and plummeted to the deck below. Emergency responders who were rushed to the boat were unable to revive Mr. Sutherland, who was later pronounced dead at the Martha's Vineyard Hospital.

The accident was first reported to the Coast Guard by Alabama Capt. Morgan Douglas about ten minutes before noon on Friday. In a statement, Tisbury police said that Tisbury emergency medical services were notified of the accident a few minutes later, at 11:53 a.m. when a 911 call was made. Police officers Jason Marathas, Kelly Buckley and Mark Santon arrived at the town dock at Owen Park along with emergency medical technicians Cathy Perry and Christopher Cini, who were transported to the vessel by Vineyard Haven harbor master Jay Wilbur.

Mr. Wilbur, who was working in the mooring field inside the harbor, was the first to respond to the ship, which was sailing off West Chop when the accident occurred. Mr. Wilbur first met the ship as it was powering back to the harbor but turned back to pick up the emergency personnel.

When EMTs arrived, Mr. Sutherland was in cardiac arrest and unconscious with several trauma-related injuries, according to the police statement. A 41-foot Coast Guard vessel from Woods Hole met the ship as she entered Vineyard Haven harbor and transported Mr. Sutherland to land.

The Alabama is a 90-foot schooner owned and operated by Capt. Robert Douglas and his family through the Coastwise Packet Company. The Douglas family also owns the 108-foot schooner Shenandoah, as well as the Black Dog retail shops and restaurants. Both schooners are considered historic tall ships.

The accident was reported to be the first such fatality aboard either of the two ships while under the Douglas ownership.

Although Mr. Sutherland was not well-known on the Island, word of the accident spread quickly on Friday afternoon and Vineyard residents, for whom the Alabama is a familiar entity, expressed open sadness.

The Douglas family, through the Coastwise Packet Company, released a three-sentence statement yesterday: "We extend our deepest condolences to the Sutherland family. This is a terrible tragedy and a great loss. We are cooperating with authorities in their investigation."

The Coast Guard and the Massachusetts state police are conducting investigations. Lieut. Eric Brown of the investigations unit at the U.S. Coast Guard office in Providence, R.I., said yesterday he anticipates the Coast Guard report on the accident will take about a month to complete.

The lieutenant said he plans to examine every aspect of the incident in his report, which would consist of a narrative, conclusions and possible recommendations for altering the operation of the vessel. He also said that if the Coast Guard finds that its rules were violated, it may issue enforcement actions, such as suspension or revocation of license, or civil penalties. Any enforcement recommendations likely would be issued about two weeks after the accident report.

Asked whether Coast Guard rules would have called for the use of safety harnesses for sailors in the vessel's rigging, Lieutenant Brown said such strictures normally would apply to student training ships rather than a professional operation that might be carrying students as passengers.

Lily Morris, a former Alabama crew member who worked on the ship in 1999 and was a student on both the Alabama and Shenandoah, said yesterday that while most ships she has worked on required the use of a harness while working in the rigging, harnesses were not used on either of the Douglas ships while she was onboard.

"It is a common thing for crew members to play around in the rigging, to climb around up there," she said. "I think since nothing ever happened, they didn't worry about it."

But Ms. Morris quickly added that the crew always worked hard to ensure the safety of the passengers and students and that she never witnessed anything that would put a passenger in danger.

"I have always felt that everyone on board was looked out for, that their safety has never been in question," she said.