Coast Guard finds no violations in 2006 death aboard Alabama
The United States Coast Guard last month released a report of an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the fatal fall of an 18-year-old man from the rigging of the Vineyard Haven schooner Alabama on July 14, 2006. The report concludes that, "No regulatory requirements were violated."
Benjamin Sutherland of Concord, a summer crewmember on board the 90-foot passenger schooner, fell to the deck while attempting to cross from one mast to another, suspended by his hands and feet along the spring stay, a wire that connects the two masts. In sailing jargon the technique is known as "laying across the spring stay."
According to the report issued Jan. 16, 2008 and obtained by The Times through a Freedom of Information Act request, Mr. Sutherland was aloft for no apparent reason, as the vessel left Vineyard Haven Harbor.
The vessel's captain, Morgan Douglas, and the first mate told Coast Guard investigators that all crewmembers were required to obtain permission from the captain prior to going aloft. However, three crewmen interviewed in the report said they were unaware of such a policy.
Alabama, a former pilot schooner based in Mobile, Alabama, was rebuilt and re-rigged by Capt. Robert S. Douglas of West Tisbury. 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.
The report's conclusions said that training and company policies for crewmembers climbing the rigging "appear to be unstructured and loosely defined, particularly in regards to obtaining permission to going aloft."
The conclusions also note, "The practice of laying across the spring stay is an extremely dangerous and unnecessary evolution, especially while the vessel is underway, and without a safety harness. Although crewmembers were not directed to use the spring stay, it appears the practice was not discouraged and was considered by some crewmembers as a daring accomplishment or rite of passage."
The report makes two recommendations. It directs the Coast Guard commander for this sector to draft a letter to The Black Dog Company "recommending the implementation of written policies regarding aloft procedures, to clearly communicate aloft expectations to crewmembers and prohibit the practice of laying across the spring stay."
The report also recommends the Coast Guard research the feasibility of a new regulation for vessels in the Alabama class, requiring the use of safety harnesses for crewmembers who go aloft.
On Tuesday, Capt. Morgan Douglas told The Times that the report speaks for itself. He declined further comment.
Sail ends in tragedy
Alabama had left her Vineyard Haven mooring late Friday morning for a day's sail. She was about one hour into her sail, carrying 45 passengers and nine crewmembers, including two trainees and four deckhands.
Benjamin Sutherland, called Bennie, had graduated in June from Concord Carlisle High School. He was taking a year off after high school "to explore life," according to his family.
Alabama was east of West Chop at about 11:30 am, when Mr. Sutherland lost his grip on the spring stay and fell to the deck.
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. Mr. Sutherland had suffered severe trauma and related injuries and was in cardiac arrest when the EMTs arrived on the scene. 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.
According to the report, it was not unusual for crewmembers to climb the rigging or cross the spring stay. However, it was not normally done while the vessel was underway.
Crew training was "on the job training" with no written guidelines or procedures. "Crewmembers received initial indoctrination and any additional training required to demonstrate satisfactory comfort and proficiency level regarding going aloft," said the report
At the time of the accident, Mr. Sutherland was not wearing any type of safety harness. The investigation revealed that the wearing of safety harnesses was not recommended or mandated by company policy or regulations, and safety harnesses were not carried aboard.
The report's conclusion addresses an issue that provokes some debate within the sailing community. "Controlling the [Alabama's] sails while underway can be done from the main deck, although occasionally personnel may be required to go aloft to address problematic situations with rigging and sails. The use of mandated harnesses and other fall arresting equipment aloft is a subject of contention amongst sailing vessels, and is regarded by some as a hindrance and safety hazard."
Included among the report's notations by Coast Guard officials who reviewed the accident is the view that no new regulations are needed.
"While we acknowledge the risks taken by deckhands going aloft on small sailing passenger vessels, especially if done without use of a safety harness or other fall protection gear, we do not believe the addition of new regulatory requirements is justified by this incident. First, a review of accident data from 1991 - 2007 found that this is the only documented incident of a crewmember falling from the rigging on a small sailing passenger vessel during that time period. Second, regulations are intended to prescribe requirements to be followed during normal vessel operations or during emergency situations. In this incident, the crewmember who went aloft did so for reasons outside of those associated with normal/emergency vessel operations. While we do not believe that new regulations are justified, we do believe that it would be beneficial to crew safety on small sailing passenger vessels to highlight the dangers of going aloft on these vessels without fall protection gear. For this reason we will publish a safety advisory relating to the use of fall protection gear aboard sailing vessels."