Alabama crewman dies in fall from rig
Coast Guard investigates accident
Eighteen-year-old Benjamin Sutherland of Concord died Friday when he fell from the rigging of the Vineyard Haven schooner Alabama to the deck. Mr. Sunderland was in his first year as crew on the 90-foot passenger vessel. The Coast Guard's Marine Safety Office in Providence is investigating the accident.
Alabama, one of two passenger schooners operated by the Coastwise Packet Company, had left her Vineyard Haven mooring late in the morning for a day's sail with 15 passengers and six crew. She was east of West Chop when the accident happened. Tisbury police and the town's ambulance service got a call just before noon reporting that there was a badly injured person aboard. Tisbury harbormaster Jay Wilbur met town emergency personnel at the Owen Park Town Dock and transported them to Alabama, which was under power and returning to the harbor. According to Tisbury police, they found Mr. Sutherland had "suffered severe trauma and related injuries and was in cardiac arrest when the EMTs arrived on the scene." Police and EMTs learned that Mr. Sutherland had fallen about 30 feet to the deck. A Coast Guard 41-footer arrived from Woods Hole, took Mr. Sutherland aboard, and transported him to the Owen Park dock, where the Tisbury ambulance waited. He was taken to Martha's Vineyard Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Benjamin Sutherland of Concord died in an accident aboard Alabama July 14. Photo courtesy of Daniel Sutherland
According to witnesses' accounts of the event, Mr. Sutherland was traveling between Alabama's two masts along a nearly horizontal wire known as the spring stay. The practice is to wrap the feet around it at the ankles and pull oneself along hand over hand. The spring stay is attached near the top of each mast, but it is not nearly as high as the top of the topmasts, which reach beyond and carry additional sails. He fell along the foresail and then to the deck.
Sgt. Jeffrey Stone, the Massachusetts State Police detective overseeing the state's investigation of Mr. Sutherland's death, said Tuesday that the results of the state medical examiner's autopsy showed that Mr. Sutherland died from massive trauma to the head and upper torso, consistent with his fall, and that he did not have a safety harness on. It appears that the manner of death and cause of death are definitely accidental, Lieutenant Stone said, and with that the State Police investigation has ended.
Alabama, a former pilot schooner based in Mobile, Alabama, was rebuilt and re-rigged by Capt. Robert S. Douglas of West Tisbury. Captain Douglas's son Morgan is master of Alabama. She is the second passenger schooner to fly the Douglas house flag, following the 108-foot, topsail schooner Shenandoah. Both vessels operate for Black Dog Tall Ships, which is part of the restaurant and clothing company controlled by the Douglas family, with outlets on the Vineyard and in several ports on the mainland. Alabama charters for special events, daysails, and cruises of a few days or a week or so. Shenandoah, as she has done since the 1960s, takes passengers, almost exclusively groups of chaperoned young people, on week-long sailing trips.
An Alabama crewman stood on the mainmast spreader Sunday, during an afternoon's sail. Photo by Julian K. Robinson
In a statement released this week, the Coastwise Packet Company said, "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.
Yesterday, Capt. Morgan Douglas and his family invited Island friends, sailors and others to a memorial service for the Alabama crewman, on Sunday, at 2 pm, aboard Alabama.
Mark Sutherland, a ship model maker, scrimshander, and artist who lives and works in Concord, said Tuesday that his son was a "sweet kid, very perceptive, with a great sense of humor, and he was pretty good at reading people." He said his son had enjoyed his experience on Alabama and had gotten to know and like the other members of the crew. Benjamin, called Bennie by his sister, was tall and slim, with curly, dark hair and sometimes wore glasses. He was a soccer player throughout school and a talented artist in his own right. He had graduated in June from Concord Carlisle High School, and he made scrimshaw for his senior project. He was taking a year off after high school "to explore life," according to an obituary prepared by the family (see Calendar, Page 34).
"Ben showed real promise," his father said. "When he graduated, we figured he was old enough, we knew Bob [Douglas], wouldn't it be great. It seemed like a good fit," Mr. Sutherland explained.
The Sutherland family has Nantucket roots and share a house there, as well as a connection to the Vineyard. Mr. Sutherland met the senior Captain Douglas in the 1980s, and over the years built a collection of half-models of clipper ships for the history-minded Douglas. The model-builder and the captain shared an interest in sailing, square-rigged vessels and maritime history. The Sutherlands own a 28-foot gaff rigged, Maine-built sloop called Mary Blaine, and Mr. Sutherland and his son had sailed and cruised, and done some "backyard boatbuilding" together, for years. "It was part of my life, and it was his life as well," Mr. Sutherland said of his son.
Flags of Alabama, foreground, and Shenandoah flew at half staff all weekend. Photo by Susan Safford
Mr. Sutherland had just returned to his Concord home from the Vineyard a day or so before the phone call came. He had been on the Island to collect a show of his models on display at the Gould Gallery, near the Black Dog Tavern. Mr. Sutherland was working in his Concord model shop when Benjamin's mother Dominique got the call. She said, "Benjamin's had a fall." Then the news worsened.
"It was devastating," Mr. Sutherland recalled. "There's nothing you can say. The room begins to swirl."
The Sutherland family, including Benjamin's sister, hurried to the Vineyard and met at the funeral home here, with the Douglas family and members of the Shenandoah crew. "Charlene," Mr. Sutherland said, referring to the wife of Capt. Robert Douglas, "was tremendously supportive." Later, both families, friends, and the crews gathered for a late meal at the Black Dog Tavern.
Captain Robert Douglas, who alone has commanded Shenandoah, a square-rigged vessel, with no auxiliary power, for 43 years without a serious injury, said to Mr. Sutherland, "I guess the luck ran out."
Friday, as the Coast Guard began its inquiry, taking statements from Alabama's captain, crew, and passengers, Shenandoah cut her week-long trip short, discharging her passengers a day early and returning to her mooring. Both she and Alabama flew their flags at half-staff until Tuesday morning. Sunday, the Douglas family and the crews of both vessels took Alabama out for an afternoon sail - sort of a way to begin breathing again, someone said. Shenandoah boarded passengers Sunday and departed Vineyard Haven Tuesday morning. Lieut. Eric Brown, who is conducting the Coast Guard investigation, said neither vessel and neither captain is under any restrictions.
The investigation will take a month or so to complete. Lieutenant Brown has more than 20 investigations open, but this one, he said, involving as it does a death, is a priority. Several outcomes are possible. There could be policy changes recommended to the vessel's owner. There may be enforcement action, if the inquiry determines it is needed, and the company that owns Alabama could face a civil penalty, but only if the investigation finds such action by the Coast Guard warranted, Lieutenant Brown explained.
He said the investigation involved several areas of interest. Because the vessel is licensed by the Coast Guard, its condition and management, including its policies and procedures, would be part of the inquiry. Because Captain Morgan Douglas is a "Coast Guard credentialed" officer, he will be subject to the inquiry as well. And because the Coast Guard is concerned with the marine safety of all individuals who go to sea, the investigator said, "If anything, safety will be enhanced."