Boating safety reform remains 'priority' to grieving parents

FBI and local authorities recover the Kandi Won, the cabin cruiser that sank July Fourth killing three children in Oyster Bay. Videojournalists: Jim Staubitser, Kevin P. Coughlin and News 12 (July 11, 2012)

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The Fourth of July boating accident that killed three children continues to spur efforts to improve safety on the water.

While the Nassau County district attorney's office determined last week that no one was criminally responsible for the capsizing of the 34-foot Silverton cabin cruiser in Oyster Bay Harbor, some legislators, boating safety advocates and the family of one of the victims want to establish capacity limits for larger watercraft.

They also want to require that operators pass a safety course, and mandate better control of marine events that attract a large fleet of spectator vessels.

"It is clear that boating safety laws, rules and regulations need to be examined and some changed," said Paul Gaines, whose daughter Victoria was killed in the accident. He and his wife, Lisa, have been campaigning for new legislation.

Bills in Albany

Last fall, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) introduced a bill to require the Coast Guard to set capacity limits for boats larger than 20 feet, the current federal threshold. The bill did not pass in the last session, and Schumer plans to reintroduce it this week. "Since the Coast Guard has declined to act to prevent another tragedy, Congress must," Schumer said.

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A bill introduced in the State Legislature by State Sen. Eric Adams (D-Brooklyn) would also require capacity limits on larger pleasure craft.

The Kandi Won, with 27 people aboard, rolled over and sank after the operator of the boat, Sal Aureliano, said the vessel struck a large wake that he couldn't see in the dark. Three children trapped in the cabin died: cousins David Aureliano, 12, and Harlie Treanor, 11, and family friend Victoria Gaines, 7.

Boat's design faulted

Nassau officials have yet to issue their findings on the cause of the Kandi Won sinking, but the district attorney's office said a county police investigation uncovered "gaping holes in the maritime regulatory system and contributory design flaws in the vessel."

While the county says it will elaborate on its findings in a future report, many safety experts insist the boat was overloaded and thus unstable.

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Some boating experts say the 1984 Silverton model involved in the sinking has a reputation for being "tippy" even when not overloaded, but there is no capacity limit for it under federal or industry regulations.

The nonprofit American Boat and Yacht Council, the industry association that determines occupancy limits, is considering voluntarily increasing its threshold from the current 26 feet.

The council's re-examination of its standard stems from research by the director of a boat design institute in Maine owned by the council. Dave Gerr, director of the Westlawn Institute of Marine Technology, decided last fall to determine the safe occupancy of the Kandi Won. He determined the boat should have had no more than 15 or 16 people on board.

Gerr re-created design drawings for the boat since the originals were not available because Silverton, which never set a recommended capacity for that model, is out of business.

His analysis was based on eight people on the flying bridge, "but it would have still been fairly unsafe even if there was no people on the flying bridge. Under any conceivable configuration, 27 people on board would be relatively unsafe."

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He said Kandi Won could have capsized when it heeled to one side during a turn, hit a small wave or wake, too many people moved to one side, or a combination of these factors.

James Mercante, a Manhattan maritime attorney representing Kevin Treanor, the boat's owner and Harlie's father, insists overcrowding was not to blame. He said the Kandi Won capsized after hitting a large wake. He challenges Gerr's analysis because it is not based on the maker's design drawings. He said Gerr's report "confirmed to me that wakes played a role in this incident."

Considering new standard

Gerr and other council staff recommended to the organization's technical board, which makes the decisions on setting standards, that it set capacity standards for boats larger than 26 feet. The board in October commissioned a study to determine whether there was a statistically significant number of injuries or loss of life on capsizing boats larger than 26 feet to warrant the new standard. Council president John Adey said the technical board received the statistical report last week but hasn't reviewed it yet.

Philip Cappel, the Coast Guard's chief of the Recreational Boating Product Assurance Branch and also a member of the industry council's technical committee, said the idea of capacity standards for larger boats "didn't go over too well at the tech board meeting" because most fatal accidents occur on small boats. "It gets rather complicated for capacity labels when you get into the larger boats," he said.

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Margaret Podlich, president of the Boat Owners Association of the United States, questioned the need for capacity limits on larger boats because most fatal accidents occur on smaller craft. "I'd like to see an analysis of how many lives this would save," she said.

The National Marine Manufacturers Association says it is reviewing the issue of capacity limits for larger boats.

In Albany, Adams' bill would require capacity limits for larger boats, that all boaters pass a safety course and that there be better security for mass boating events.

State Sen. Charles Fuschillo Jr. (R-Merrick) said he expects his bill to require all boaters to pass a safety course to be voted out of the Transportation Committee, which he has headed, this month.

Suffolk County passed its own mandatory education bill last fall. Its sponsor, Legis. Steve Stern (D-Huntington), said he is working with boating safety groups and the state parks department to make sure there will be sufficient courses for all of the county's boaters before the law takes effect Nov. 6. "We will be able to meet the need," he said.

Paul Gaines, Victoria's father, said he and his wife would be going to Albany soon to lobby for passage of the new legislation introduced by Fuschillo, Adams and other lawmakers in the new session.

"This is a priority," he said. "I refuse to let my daughter's death be in vain."

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