Investigating a Tragedy

When Benjamin Sutherland, an eighteen-year-old high school graduate, fell thirty feet from the rigging of the sailing vessel Alabama on a calm day in July two thousand six and later died from his injuries, the Coast Guard launched an investigation into what had happened and what, if anything, could have prevented the tragedy.

In a careful and thorough report, the service now has concluded that no violations of Coast Guard rules occurred.

Mr. Sutherland, who was working on board the Alabama that summer, was crossing the spring stay line by hand when the fatal accident occurred. The spring stay is a rigging line connecting the masts of the mainsail and the foresail on two-masted vessels. The Alabama was under way at the time.

The report noted, however, that neither the captain of the vessel, Morgan Douglas, nor other ship officers had instructed Mr. Sutherland to be in the rigging.

Why, then, was he there? The answer never will be known with certainty.

According to the report, some crew members considered crossing the spring stay a rite of passage aside from any particular task involving the line.

The Coast Guard did find, however, that “training policies and company policies for going aloft appear to be unconstructed and loosely defined, particularly in regards to obtaining permission to go aloft.”

The service has sent the Alabama’s owners a letter recommending that they put into place written policies that clearly convey expectations to crew members about going aloft. The Coast Guard also recommended the vessel owners prohibit the practice of laying across the spring stay without a safety harness while the vessel is under way. Several Coast Guard investigators recommended extending the safety measures to all vessels in the Alabama class.

The pain of a young, promising life cut unnecessarily short remains undiminished. But the professional investigation by the Coast Guard yields hope that the rigging of the Alabama and similar crewed sailing vessels has become a safer place.