Coast Guard may crack down on overnight vessels

The fatal California dive boat fire has prompted the Passenger Vessel Association (PVA) to advise members that a Coast Guard inspection crackdown on overnight vessels might be coming so it would be prudent to review “important safety and risk management essentials.”

In its notice PVA provided annotations to a Coast Guard safety bulletin issued to all commercial vessel operators after the Conception burned just off Santa Cruz Island Sept. 2 killing 33 passengers and one crew.

While PVA members are not involved in overnight diving operations, “this was a significant accident resulting in loss of life that is well worth examining,” the trade group said. “It is likely that the Coast Guard will intensify inspection efforts for passenger vessels with overnight accommodations, focusing specifically on fire safety, vessel operations and safety management.”

The National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) preliminary report said all six crew members were asleep when the fire started – five in berths behind the wheelhouse and one in the bunk room. The vessel’s Certificate of Inspection (COI) requires a roving watch, according to the Coast Guard, which said the 75’x25’ wooden-hulled Conception built in 1981 was inspected in February and complied with regulatory requirements. The victims likely died of smoke inhalation, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff said.

The Coast Guard has convened a rare Marine Board of Investigation to determine the cause of the accident. Meanwhile its safety bulletin said operators shouldn’t wait for the probe’s findings to make sure their vessels are safe.

For example, the bulletin urged mariners to “ensure crewmembers are aware of and clearly understand their obligations including any additional requirements detailed on the COI.”  PVA pointed out requirements on certain vessels include an overnight watchman and an alternate crew for operations of more than 12 hours over a 24-hour period.

The Coast Guard said emergency escapes should be clearly identified, functional and unobstructed. PVA said drills should be held as if there were an actual emergency; instructions should be vessel specific; and operators should see if there are ways to improve emergency escapes.

Conception crewmembers tried to get through the galley’s double doors to the passengers, but it was already in flames, the NTSB said. Then they tried unsuccessfully to get through some windows, but they were overwhelmed by smoke and jumped overboard.

The Coast Guard bulletin also suggests limiting the unsupervised charging of lithium-ion batteries and extensive use of power strips and extension cords. Immediately after the accident, the NTSB said a lot of cameras, cell phones and other equipment were being charged onboard. PVA notes that “lithium-ion batteries have been problematic in the past, so is there a company policy regarding the carriage or charging of that type of battery?”

Both the Coast Guard and NTSB investigations could take more than a year to complete.

Three days after the accident, vessel owner Truth Aquatics of Santa Barbara, Calif., asked a federal court to limit its liability under an 1851 law that keeps damages to the value of the vessel and its freight.

About the author

Dale K. DuPont

Dale DuPont has been a correspondent for WorkBoat since 1998. She has worked at daily and weekly newspapers in Texas, Maryland, and most recently as a business writer and editor at The Miami Herald, covering the cruise, marine and other industries. She and her husband once owned a weekly newspaper in Cooperstown, N.Y., across the alley from the Baseball Hall of Fame. A South Florida resident, she enjoys sailing on Biscayne Bay, except in hurricane season.

1 Comment

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    They’d go a long way toward safety if they also considered the type of flammable material used in the construction of the vessel, automatic fixed fire fighting systems, and making the night watch consist of 2 people (at least one of which is licensed). They should also look at the wisdom of allowing propane any where near or around the passenger quarters and galley.

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