Town lends a hand to boating safety reform

Police tow in the Kandi Won, a 34-foot

Police tow in the Kandi Won, a 34-foot Silverton cabin-cruiser that capsized on July 4 to the Oyster Bay Marine Center where it was taken out of the water. Three children on board the vessel died when the boat overturned after returning from viewing a fireworks display. (July 11, 2012) (Credit: Kevin P Coughlin)

Joye Brown

Newsday columnist Joye Brown Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006.

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'I don't think I've ever seen so much pain on somebody's face," Pamela Setchell, president of the Huntington Lighthouse Preservation Society, said last week.

She was referring to Lisa Gaines, mother of Victoria, one of three children who died July 4 when the Kandi Won capsized after a fireworks display in Oyster Bay Harbor.

Last week, Gaines sat in the meeting room of Huntington Town Hall, surrounded by an audience that appeared to be made up mostly of boaters and fellow town residents.

While the investigation into the formal cause of the sinking is ongoing in Oyster Bay, the first efforts toward making boating events safer are happening in Huntington.

Last week, the town hosted a session on -- as a handout put it -- "Helpful Hints For Attending a Boating Event Safely."

The idea, according to Supervisor Frank Petrone, was twofold: Educate boat owners and gather feedback for state lawmakers considering how to make boating safer.

During a series of presentations, speakers emphasized planning and safety. They also stressed, repeatedly, that owners need to "know your boat" -- how stable it is, how much weight it can hold, how best to distribute the weight and how the vessel can be expected to handle a wake.

At one point, as a video of a boat sinking -- quickly, so frighteningly quickly -- showed in the background, two volunteers worked to don life jackets. They were successful, but the background boat was well under water by the time they were done.

The information likely was elementary for the ample number of seasoned boaters in the room, but for the rest of us it was a revelation.

Gaines and her husband -- who are making boating safety their mission in memory of their daughter -- listened and saw it all, too. Gaines often shook her head and wiped away tears. At the end, she stood and thanked the audience for coming.

Setchell, who is a captain, was one catalyst for the evening's proceedings. She and her husband, also a trained captain, were in Oyster Bay -- Nassau County-controlled waters -- on July 4.

"I'd seen the boat earlier," she said. "Later, we could hear the radio chatter about the boat going down, about people in the water."

The next day, she said, she reached out to Harry Acker, Huntington's senior harbormaster, and others. "We've got to talk," she remembers saying. "Our music fest is the next big North Shore event."

Locals -- boaters, town officials and boating organizations -- began pulling together as a community of concern to explore what could be done.

In addition, Suffolk County Legis. Steve Stern (D-Dix Hills) proposed a Suffolk Safer Waterways Act, which would mandate that boaters display safety course certification or face fines. Last week, state Sen. Carl Marcellino, a Republican whose district includes Oyster Bay and parts of Huntington, held a hearing on boating safety, too.

On Tuesday, the Huntington Town board is slated to consider a measure to impose a temporary 5 mph speed limit in waters up to one mile around the Huntington lighthouse on Sept. 1, when the popular lighthouse music fest will be held.

"That's a big deal," Setchell said. But more needs to be done. Setchell would like to see New York State mandate 12 hours of education for boat owners.

"Being on the water is one of the most satisfying things there is, but you've got to respect it," Setchell said. "It should take more than a checkbook to become a boat owner."