New rules mean fewer passengers

More than two years after five people died when an overloaded water taxi sank in Baltimore's harbor, the U.S. Coast Guard urged operators of small passenger vessels yesterday to adjust for the greater heftiness of the average American.

The Coast Guard called on the owners of all pontoon boats and other passenger boats under 65 feet to assume that the average passenger weighs 185 pounds and to recalculate their vessels' capacities accordingly. For years, marine safety rules have been based on assumed average weights of 140 to 160 pounds depending on the circumstances.

The "interim" measure, published yesterday in the Federal Register as a first step toward mandatory regulations, is the Coast Guard's response to a recommendation issued last month by the National Transportation Safety Board as part of its investigation of the capsizing of the pontoon boat Lady D. The boat overturned on its run from Fort McHenry to Fells Point.

The 140-pound standard is based on an estimate of average weight that was set in 1942 and not revised for decades even as the American people collectively supersized themselves.

The Lady D was permitted to carry up to 25 passengers under that weight assumption. But investigators later found that the pontoon boat was more than 600 pounds overloaded because of the average size of its passengers, reducing its stability and making it unable to withstand the wind and waves that struck it March 6, 2004.

The Coast Guard said it was making its interim recommendation now because the approach of the summer boating season makes the passenger weight issue "all the more urgent."

One of the survivors of the Lady D accident welcomed the Coast Guard action. "It took a long time to get there, but it's going in the right direction finally," said Tom Pierce, who lost his wife and a daughter in the water taxi accident. "After that Lake George accident, I realized things weren't changing fast enough. It's a good sign."

The NTSB has given preliminary indications that overloading might have been a contributing factor in the Oct. 2, 2005, capsizing of the tour boat Ethan Allen on New York's Lake George. Twenty people, most of them elderly, died.

The Coast Guard said it is also moving to develop binding weight regulations for the boating industry. It said yesterday that it "tentatively intends" to make the rules similar to the voluntary guidelines announced yesterday.

The tightened standards could impose significant new burdens on the industry at a time when operators face increasing fuel costs. In many cases, vessels might have to cut the number of passengers they can carry on a trip - potentially cutting into profit margins.

Some boat passengers said they worried that the new guidelines would increase costs.

Walter Ciszek, 53, a Reisterstown paint contractor and occasional water taxi rider, said the recommendation seems unnecessary.

"One tip-over in 25 years - how long has the harbor been here? That's a pretty good deal. There's only one tip-over, and that's when there was a storm. They should leave it like it is," said Ciskek, who stands 6 feet 2 inches and weighs 235 pounds.

But Billy Henderson, 40, who frequently catches water taxis on his commute from his bartender job at the Inner Harbor to his home in Canton, said the Coast Guard's recommendation made sense.

"They probably should have upped it so they're safe," he said. "Better safe than sorry."

The owner of the company currently operating Inner Harbor water taxis - which was not involved in the Lady D accident - did not return phone messages last night.

Angela McArdle, a Coast Guard spokeswoman, said marine safety regulators would work with the industry to set permanent standards - a sometimes lengthy process. But she said the Coast Guard agreed with the NTSB that it should issue an interim standard more quickly.

"This is something we can do to make sure the guidance is out there for the people that need it most," she said.

The voluntary standard apparently would affect more than 7,000 commercial boats including water taxis, passenger-only ferries, party boats, conventional tour vessels and amphibious vessels such as the "Ducks" vehicles that cruise the Inner Harbor.

McArdle noted that the Coast Guard's voluntary standard is higher than the 174-pound average summertime weight assumed by the Federal Aviation Administration for commercial air travel on large jets. The FAA raised that standard from 160 pounds after a 2003 commuter plane crash in North Carolina killed 21.

The Coast Guard said it is basing its 185-pound standard on a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that found the average weight of American men and women had grown more than 24 pounds between the 1960s and 2002. The CDC calculated an average American weight of 177.7 pounds, and the Coast Guard added the FAA's assumed clothing weight of 7.5 pounds to reach 185.

That standard is slightly less than the 190 pounds used by a Coast Guard working group that studied the issue. That group called the 190-weight standard "conservative" and suggested that assumed passenger weights should track future changes in the population.

Specifically, the Coast Guard urged "the prudent owner and operator" to change passenger capacities by dividing their current allowed total weight by 185 pounds.

The agency also recommended that operators notify local Coast Guard marine safety officers if any structural or equipment changes have been made since the vessel's stability was last evaluated.

Modifications made after the previous stability test have been raised as a potential issue in the Ethan Allen accident. The Lady D's capacity was based on a test on a so-called "sister vessel" that had significant differences in its deckhouse.

While the current guidelines are voluntary, their promulgation by the Coast Guard could affect the liability of operators in the event of future boating accidents involving overloading.

The Coast Guard is being sued by the operator of the Lady D and its insurers, who contend that the agency failed to properly carry out its certification responsibilities by approving the vessel for carrying 25 passengers. The insurance companies for the nonprofit organization that operated the Lady D have settled with the accident's survivors and victims' relatives.

Sun reporter Nicole Fuller contributed to this article.