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Remarks at the Boat/US National Advisory Council Annual Dinner Meeting, Captiva Island, Florida
Jim Hall
Boat/US National Advisory Council Annual Dinner Meeting, Captiva Island, Florida

Good evening. Thank you for inviting me to attend your annual dinner meeting. I'm pleased to be here to speak to so many of the leaders in recreational boating. I'd also like to take this opportunity to congratulate BOAT/US's founding President Richard Schwartz for his tireless efforts to promote recreational boating safety and for his recent prestigious award from the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators at their recent Hot Springs conference.

As you may know, for the past 32 years, the National Transportation Safety Board has been the eyes and ears of the American people at accident sites. In establishing the Board in 1967, Congress believed that an independent investigative agency was necessary to provide oversight to Department of Transportation modal administrations.

Because the NTSB doesn't regulate or fund transportation operations, we can be impartial and make objective safety recommendations to improve the system. Although recipients have no obligation to comply with our recommendations, historically, over 82 percent have been adopted and implemented - primarily through the quality and strength of those recommendations and the force of our advocacy efforts. This process has worked well for three decades and is so well respected around the world that at least a dozen other countries either have a similar system or are working toward one.

Over the years, our recommendations have led to numerous safety improvements in all transportation modes - including such lifesaving devices as EPIRBs on commercial fishing vessels. I think you'll agree that the American people get a good return on their investment of 20 cents per person that it takes to run the agency annually.

As a result of its investigations into recreational boating accidents, the Board has undertaken a number of initiatives to improve boating safety. And, over the years, Boat/US has been very helpful in promoting those endeavors and informing boaters about our efforts. But, we all know that more needs to be done. Recreational boating sales continue to increase. The number of boats reported by the States to the Coast Guard has increased by more than 400,000 in the last two years. Accidents also continue to increase. There were more than 8,000 last year, an increase of nearly 33 percent from six years ago.

Unfortunately, our waterways are becoming as congested and deadly as our highways. We must be willing to aggressively protect the safety of those traveling on our rivers and lakes as we do those traveling on our interstates and streets. The American public expects - and we should demand - no less. That's why I'm here tonight.

I want to talk to you about the latest Board report on a recreational boating accident because I believe it will have far-reaching significance for the entire recreational boating community as the facts become known and our recommendations are implemented. On December 29, 1997, the Morning Dew struck the north jetty at the entrance to Charleston harbor, about a mile from shore. Onboard were the owner, his two 13- and 16-year-old sons, and his 14-year-old nephew. All four were killed.

The Safety Board was first informed about this accident in April 1998, when several members of Congress asked us to conduct an independent investigation into the circumstances surrounding the accident and to review the Coast Guard's actions following the accident. I want to point out that under our current agreement with the Coast Guard, we were not initially informed about the accident because it didn't meet the notification criteria.

As a result of the Congressional requests, we proceeded to conduct an extensive investigation. We interviewed more than 35 witnesses and gathered extensive factual information from the Coast Guard, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, the Charleston Pilots Association, the Charleston Coroner, and family members of the victims. We also asked the U.S. Naval Surface Warfare Center to survey the communications system serving Coast Guard Group Charleston, including two subordinate stations and six antenna high sites stretching from Myrtle Beach to Savannah. The Navy also transcribed more than 300 hours of radio and telephone communications recorded at the Charleston station. In addition, the Board held a public hearing in Charleston in February 1999, chaired by Board Member George Black.

What we found was distressing.

The trip began innocently enough. The owner had planned to move the boat from South Carolina to Jacksonville, Florida via the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) and had purchased the appropriate charts for that trip. The group got underway a little after noon on the 27th. On the afternoon of 28th, near Georgetown, SC, the Morning Dew was seen proceeding outbound in the main shipping channel, past the entrance to the ICW, and toward the open ocean.

Although we don't know why he changed his mind, the available evidence suggests that the boat's operator made a conscious decision to continue his voyage by sea rather than on the ICW - even though, from what we could learn, the boat, its operator, and its passengers hadn't been adequately prepared or equipped for a trip into the open ocean.

In order for the Morning Dew to exit the bay and reach the open ocean, it had to continue in or near the shipping channel for about another seven miles, during which time the boat would pass 12 or more channel markers before reaching the mouth of the bay. Once there, the vessel had to navigate past a 2.2-mile-long jetty before turning right to follow a southwesterly course, along the coast, toward Charleston, South Carolina, about 43 miles away. Just after two in the morning, the Morning Dew ran onto the north jetty at the entrance to Charleston Harbor, and eventually sank.

At 2:17, a Coast Guard Group Charleston communications watchstander received a static-filled radio message - the only words he heard were "U.S. Coast Guard." Although he tried to raise someone on the radio, he received no response. And, despite having the capability to do so, he didn't replay the tape to determine the nature of the call. Nor did he wake his duty officer. Much later, when the tape was finally replayed, the voice of an excited adolescent male was heard saying "May...mayday, U.S. Coast Guard come in."

We learned during the investigation that the watchstander had actually received two calls. However, he didn't take any action other than his initial attempt to raise someone on the radio. As a result, no other action was taken until about four hours later. About 6:20 that morning, as a ship was entering the harbor, the vessel's bosun heard what he thought were cries for help coming from the water. He immediately radioed the master on the bridge and reported it. A pilot on board asked another boat operator to search the area and to call the Coast Guard.

When informed of the report, the Coast Guard duty officer decided to take no action, even though Coast Guard resources were available to initiate a search. He later told investigators that he thought the pilot boat could handle the situation. However, the pilot boat didn't find anything during its search.

A full search wasn't initiated until the body of one of the teenage victims was found just off shore about 11:00. The other two teenagers were found soon after that. The owner's body wasn't found until about three weeks later.

Following the accident, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources initiated a death investigation. Despite a SCDNR request, the Coast Guard wasn't forthcoming with information about the accident because they were conducting an administrative investigation into the watchstander's actions. In fact, although Coast Guard officials were aware of the mayday call on the evening of December 29th, no one outside the Coast Guard, including the SCDNR or the victims' families, was told about it for more than 2 1/2 months. That failure not only unnecessarily hampered the SCDNR's investigation, but it was a grave disservice to the families. The information wasn't released until Boating News filed a Freedom of Information Act request about the call.

As a result of our investigation, the Board determined that the probable cause of the accident was the operator's failure to adequately assess, prepare for, and respond to the known risks of the journey into the open ocean. We also found that the substandard performance of U.S. Coast Guard Group Charleston in initiating a search and rescue response to the accident contributed to the deaths of the four individuals on board.

In order to prevent similar events from happening again, the Board recommended a number of actions to improve the Coast Guard's Search and Rescue (SAR) operations. We've asked them to:

· Improve the communication infrastructure, training, qualification standards, management oversight, and operational readiness at Coast Guard SAR communication commands.

· Take the steps necessary to immediately begin to equip all Coast Guard search and rescue communications centers with, (1) the capability for watchstanders to easily and instantly replay the most recent recorded radio transmissions and (2) currently available, commercial, off-the-shelf direction-finding systems that provide, at a minimum, the capability to establish a position fix and to record position data for later retrieval and analysis.

· Review the ergonomic adequacy of equipment layouts, and workload and staffing at Coast Guard group communications centers to foster efficient and effective communications watchstander performance.

· And, validate the cooperative agreements with the States to insure that the objective of the Federal Boat Safety Act of 1971 to foster cooperation between State and Federal governments to reduce deaths, injuries, and property damage from recreational boating accidents through a coordinated national boating safety program is achieved.

In the Florida Air Specialist accident, which is still under investigation, a distress call from the sinking boat was logged by Coast Guard Auxiliary watchstanders as a hoax. The Coast Guard did not initiate a review of the recorded radio communications until the only survivor of the accident reported that a distress call had been transmitted. If no one had survived the accident, the Coast Guard would never have known that the distress call had been made.

These accidents, as well as others the Board has investigated, underscore the need for independent oversight of the Coast Guard's activities. The Board should have the same independent authority to conduct major marine safety investigations that Congress has already given us in the other transportation modes - highway, railroad, aviation, and pipeline.

I want to be very clear on this point - we can't routinely perform such investigations now. The accident that occurred on May 1st of this year on Lake Hamilton in Arkansas reinforced that point. Thirteen people lost their lives in that accident. The vessel that sank, called a "duck," is one of at least 60 converted World War II amphibious craft operated nationwide and is certificated and inspected by the Coast Guard.

The first Coast Guard officer sent to investigate the accident was the Chief of the Merchant Vessel Safety Department - who is responsible for both inspections and investigations. In other words, he was placed in the position of possibly investigating his own actions. We believe that this situation called for an independent investigation - if for no other reason than to eliminate any possible conflict of interest - the Coast Guard disagrees. They have insisted on taking custody of the wreckage, notwithstanding their involvement in its inspection.

We believe that the Coast Guard's use of military investigative procedures to investigate major civilian accidents is ineffective and counterproductive. Unlike the Board, they focus on finding fault, not finding ways to prevent similar accidents from recurring. The current process also allows the Coast Guard to veto a NTSB independent investigation. This is unacceptable. The American public deserves the same independent oversight of the marine community that is currently provided for the aviation, rail, highway and pipeline transportation communities.

The NTSB investigates only about a dozen of the most important marine accidents annually; the Coast Guard investigates about 5,000. That wouldn't change. The only difference would be that the opportunity for a fully independent review of Coast Guard's procedures, just as there is for other modes of transportation. It will not affect their search and rescue operations; it will not confuse on-scene incident command; and it will not disrupt their enforcement activity.

Let me conclude by saying that the Safety Board appreciates BOAT/US's efforts to make recreational boating safer. We hope that you will continue to lead by example by addressing the important and substantive issues facing recreational boating and by supporting our safety recommendations. If you continue to speak out forcefully on the need to improve boating safety - safety improvements will follow. If you continue to speak out for technical improvements in the United States Coast Guard SAR program - changes will occur. And, in the end, we will all be safer.

Thank you again for inviting me to be here this evening. I look forward to continuing our efforts to advance recreational boating safety.