Schooner Accident Leaves Questions

Family and Friends Gather to Mourn Death of Concord Eighteen-Year-Old Who Fell From Ship's Rigging


Family and friends of Benjamin Sutherland, a young man who died last Friday after he fell from the rigging on the schooner Alabama, will gather tomorrow and Sunday to celebrate his life.

Mr. Sutherland was shimmying across the spring stay, a cable attached to both of the Alabama's masts, when he lost his grip and fell 30 feet to the vessel's deck, witnesses said.

As those who knew Mr. Sutherland come to grips with the shock of his death, the Coast Guard Marine Safety Office in Providence, R.I. continues its investigation into the accident.

A funeral service will be held at 10 a.m. tomorrow at the First Parish on 20 Lexington Road in Concord Center, the community in which Mr. Sutherland, 18, was raised. Interment will follow in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord.

At 2 p.m. Sunday, the Douglas family, which owns the Alabama, will hold a memorial service on the vessel. Morgan Douglas, the captain of the Alabama, has invited sailors, fishermen, watermen and friends in the Vineyard community to attend the service on board the ship.

Mr. Sutherland was born in Cambridge on April 23, 1988, the son of Mark and Dominique Sutherland.

According to obituary information provided by the family, he grew up in Concord. He graduated from Concord-Carlisle High School last month. Although he planned to attend art school, he was taking a year off to explore life.

State police Sgt. Jeffrey Stone said yesterday the state medical examiner's autopsy showed that Mr. Sutherland died from massive trauma to the head and upper torso consistent with his fall. Mr. Stone said Mr. Sutherland was not wearing a harness.

The Alabama, a 90-foot, gaff-rigged pilot schooner with more than 5,000 square feet of sail, is a tall ship owned and operated by the Coastwise Packet Co., part of a group of businesses owned by the Douglas family of Vineyard Haven. Her sister vessel, the 108-foot schooner Shenandoah, typically is moored near the Alabama in Vineyard Haven harbor.

The Alabama was sailing off West Chop on a day sail Friday when, shortly before noon, an emergency 911 call was placed from the vessel reporting an accident.

Vineyard Haven harbor master Jay Wilbur brought town emergency personnel out to the vessel, which was motoring hard back into the harbor. A Coast Guard patrol boat from Woods Hole brought Mr. Sutherland and the personnel back to shore, where they were transported to the Martha's Vineyard Hospital. Mr. Sutherland subsequently was pronounced dead at the hospital.

Mr. Sutherland's mother, Dominique Sutherland, told the Concord Journal this week that the young man was shimmying across the spring stay by hooking his feet around the cable and pulling himself along hand over hand. When he got to the other side, she told the Journal, he couldn't figure out how to get his legs around the other mast, and fell.

Former Alabama crew members who spoke with the Gazette this week on condition of anonymity said that a crew member generally does not need to be on the spring stay, which helps to stabilize the masts.

One said the only need to climb onto the wire would be to use it to get from one mast to the other, a practice not taught or required but nonetheless commonly performed by crew members.

"If you need to get from one mast to the other quickly, that is the quickest way," the former crew member said. "I have done it, most everyone does it. But it is hand-over-hand technique, and you've got to be able to throw yourself around up there. It requires a lot of upper body strength."

Mr. Sutherland's father, Mark Sutherland, is a model ship builder who has known Robert Douglas Sr., the captain of the Shenandoah and patriarch of the Douglas family, for decades. The connection helped land Mr. Sutherland, already an experienced sailor, a spot on the Alabama's crew.

"His thinking was this job might be a step toward sailing in the Caribbean," Mark Sutherland told the Concord Journal. "He could gain real experience. He wanted to travel. It's just a shame he didn't have the opportunity."

Since joining the Alabama's crew on June 5, Mark Sutherland said, his son had grown fond of working with children and teaching them about the schooner.

But working on a tall ship usually means working in the rigging, which former crew members say is dangerous by nature.

Safety aboard the tall ship is always on the minds of crew members, they said. Crew members are never encouraged to climb the rigging if they are not comfortable.

"It was never pushed on me, that is certainly clear," one of them said. "Monkeying around on the rigging was never encouraged at all, and I am sure it would not be today."

Former crew members said the Douglases have always taught sailing the tall ships in a traditional manner, without the use of harnesses or safety devices.

"There is that old saying, ‘One hand is for the ship and the other is for yourself.' And to be honest, the one thing you are taught is that if you slip or let go up there, you are going to die. Quite certainly you take that to heart. When you are in the rigging, it is a serious matter, it's a dangerous place to be. But that fear often makes you focus and helps keeps you safe," one former crew member said.

All said the lack of safety devices such as harnesses is common among tall ships. One said only about 50 per cent of the vessels use them.

"The funny thing about a harness is that oftentimes the need to maneuver up there prohibits usage of it," the former crew member said. "You can't take two steps and clip in every time."

At the time of the accident, the Alabama was carrying six crew members, as well as 15 passengers from Focus Study Center, a religious summer camp for young teens in Lambert's Cove in West Tisbury.

Richard Gwathmey, a staff member at Focus, declined to comment yesterday on what happened last Friday on the Alabama. "We are under instructions not to talk to the press," Mr. Gwathmey said, saying that those instructions came from Focus supervisors.

Lieut. Eric Brown of the Coast Guard Marine Safety Office, who is conducting the investigation, anticipates that he will complete his report in about a month, with any possible enforcement actions to be filed about two weeks after the report.

The Pensacola Ship Building Co. built the Alabama in 1926 as a schooner to carry pilots out to vessels wanting to entering harbors or bays. While the company chose the schooner design for its special stability, the Alabama was powered by engine rather than sail.

In 1998, following the vessel's acquisition by Coastwide Packet, G.S. Maynard Shipyard in Vineyard Haven rebuilt the vessel and re-rigged her as a sailing ship.

Former crew members say they understand the appeal that working on a tall ship such as the Alabama would hold for a young man.

"It's part of the whole experience when you are up in the rigging," one said. "You feel invincible up there. You are so connected to the tradition of sailing and it is easy to get lost in that."

Another former crew member, who learned to sail on the Alabama as a young teen, said simply: "Going aloft is undeniably part of the glory of sailing."