How shipshape are such vessels? The short answer is that, in the U.S. at least, you're quite safe — statistically speaking. But there are worrisome gaps in regulations. Passengers can take steps to protect their own safety.
Ethan Allen, early reports from media and investigators suggested that the 40-foot-long boat may have been understaffed, overloaded and inherently unstable, and that victims weren't wearing life jackets.
The NTSB has found that similar problems, plus oversight issues involving the U.S. Coast Guard and other regulators, helped cause or worsen several accidents on commercial vessels in the last few years. Among the boats involved were the Staten Island ferry Andrew J. Barberi, which in October 2003 struck a maintenance pier, killing 11 passengers; the charter fishing boat Taki-Tooo, which capsized in June 2003 in ocean swells near Oregon's Tillamook Bay, killing 10 passengers and the captain; and the amphibious DUKW Miss Majestic, which sank in May 1999 in Lake Hamilton near Hot Springs, Ark., killing 13 passengers.
Overall, though, the industry's record in the U.S. looks good. Far fewer people die each year on small, for-hire vessels than on their own or a friend's recreational boat, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.
Its totals for commercial passenger vessels under 100 registered gross tons — which include most small tour boats and ferries, although not ones as large as the Barberi — showed an average of 30 fatalities per year from 1996 through 2003. Fewer than a fifth of these deaths were related to the operation of the vessel, the Coast Guard said; the rest resulted from natural causes or swimming, diving or snorkeling accidents.
By comparison, 676 people died last year in private recreational boating accidents in the U.S.; the year before, 703 died.
"It's an extremely safe industry," said John Groundwater, executive director of the Passenger Vessel Assn., a national trade organization based in Alexandria, Va., with 500 member companies that operate U.S.-flagged, Canadian and state-inspected passenger ships.
But it's not an untroubled industry. There is, for instance, the issue of oversight. A patchwork of state, federal and local laws governs small commercial vessels. Rules can be vague or spotty.
The U.S. Coast Guard's authority is mostly confined to so-called navigable waterways, said spokeswoman Jolie Shifflet in Washington, D.C. The official definition of this term, she said, covers U.S. waters "that are subject to the ebb and flow of the tide" and that are "presently used, have been used in the past or may be susceptible to use for transport of interstate or foreign commerce." Oceangoing vessels, for instance, fall under the Coast Guard's authority. So do the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. But some smaller rivers and lakes, such as Lake George, may not because they're not considered navigable waterways.
The Coast Guard licenses captains and inspects commercial boats under its jurisdiction. Beyond that, each class of vessel has separate regulations, Shifflet said. Boats not covered by the Coast Guard — mainly those plying inland waterways — are overseen by states or local bodies.
Two areas are especially troubling: personal flotation devices (life jackets) and safety systems.
Evidence is overwhelming that life jackets save lives. That's because most boat fatalities are drownings; last year, nearly 90% of such victims weren't wearing life jackets.
Although the Coast Guard requires that commercial boats carry life jackets, it doesn't require that passengers wear them. That's up to the captain to order, based on sailing conditions. The problem is that marine accidents can be sudden.
When the Taki-Tooo capsized in 10-foot surf and 52-degree water while crossing a sandbar at the Tillamook Bay inlet, no one was wearing a life jacket, the NTSB found. Only seven people were able to retrieve life jackets; six of them survived. Of the 12 people who went without, only two survived.
When I asked Shifflet why the Coast Guard doesn't require the wearing of personal flotation devices, she said, "The industry tells us that their passengers don't want to put on life jackets and would perhaps decide not to go on a voyage if they have to wear a life jacket."
Tillamook Bay mariners told NTSB investigators that "passengers found life jackets to be uncomfortable and that requiring passengers to wear life jackets could frighten them," the board reported in June.
Groundwater of the Passenger Vessel Assn. said his group hadn't done any studies on why captains might not require passengers to wear life jackets.
He said the vessel association, responding to "public opinion," was discussing with the Coast Guard whether life-jacket rules should be tightened.