Considering the recent tragic event that unfolded off the California coast recently I was a bit bothered by a remark on social media. The poster exhibited a common misunderstanding of the USCG’S role in vessel safety. The poster wrote. “but the boat had to be safe…It had to have been checked and inspected by the USCG.” No part of this post is correct. The boat may have been flying under the USCG’s radar and/or may have been modified after her last inspection. For passenger vessels under 100 feet there is a prodigious plan submittal process that all tour boats must go through to be CG approved. SMALL PASSENGER VESSELS INSPECTED UNDER 46 CFR SUBCHAPTER "T" Applicability (46CFR 175.110) - Vessels of less than 100 Gross Tons that carry 150 or less passengers, or has overnight accommodations for 49 or less passengers that carry more than six passengers for hire. This plan requires a means of escape. I respect and applaud the Coast Guard for all they do. The initial response by the USCG to the press “the vessel was in compliance with Federal and California rules and regulations.” Some thing is not adding up. Was the vessel safe for all on board? Did the captain misspeak in his mayday call? How is it possible that 29 were trapped below? Credited non-regulatory civilian organizations monitor and advise on, all safety related vessel construction systems and practices both legacy and as new technological advancements dictate. These civilian organizations rely on marine surveyors to inspect, report on and then advise owner/operators of boats on the current good practices and findings pursuant to their particular vessel. What will a marine survey tell us? The condition of and compliance of a vessel with the standards set forth by non-regulatory organizations such as the ABYC (American Boat and Yacht Council), NFPA (National Fire Prevention Agency), and Transport Canada’s (although this last is a regulatory body in Canada) Construction Standards for Small Vessels as well as the regulatory standards found in the Code of Federal Regulations and enforced through the USCG.
There is a major safety standard for all boats that may not have been complied with; a mayday call from the captain of the distressed vessel indicates. Was this vessel compliant with ABYC or NFPA standards? How could it be in non compliance? I think it is this, that needs to be determined. To me this is as important an issue as the cause of the fire that killed 29 souls aboard. The chief and foremost safety standard that may have been ignored and could have made a difference and saved the people that lost their lives may be indicated by looking at the vessel’s prior surveys. ABYC H-3 . It is also as important to look at the original build plans to see if this standard was followed by the vessel builder or if the boat had been modified by the owners or others. Once again the USCG passed this vessel as t-boat compliant. Currently, I still don’t know the make of the vessel.
The mayday broadcast-ed and then recorded by the Coast Guard “mayday mayday……the people are all trapped below…I don’t have an escape hatch.” Chilling words from the captain. “The vessel was in compliance with Federal and state guidelines.” From the coast guard. There is no state guideline requiring that an escape hatch be present on a motor vessel. So, yes, the officer was correct.
Most insurers and underwriters require that periodically (perhaps every 5-6 years) a vessel have a professional, skilled surveyor look over a boat and report on any findings as per ABYC (American Boat and Yacht Council) and NFPA (National Fire Prevention Agency…Specifically NFPA-302) standards. These findings may also be based on known good marine practice garnered through years of experience with boats as well as the standards put forth by organizations like the ABYC and the NFPA. The insurers/underwriters realize that the federal regulations are often considered to be mere suggestions and ignored by the boat owner. Having an emergency hatch as well as having a fire detection system are both covered in the standards of accepted vessel build and operational practices. Boat builders know this and build their boats to comply with ABYC and NFPA. They leave most of the federal and state rules up to the owners to equip and comply to. Any competent surveyor would have noted most or any ABYC/NFPA discrepancies had there been any. The jury is still out, and the investigation has just begun. Was there an escape hatch and did the people below deck, sleeping, know this? I.e. was there a safety orientation prior to the voyage as per 46 cfr 199.1
Were smoke and CO detectors installed and working as per 46 CFR 181.405? Did a surveyor point out any discrepancies in his /her findings? The proceeding investigation will reveal this and hopefully also reveal the cause.