The Conception, on which 34 people died in a Labor Day fire off the Santa Barbara coast, was among more than 100 California boats exempted from strict U.S. Coast Guard rules adopted more than two decades ago to improve passenger safety during emergencies, according to a Times data analysis.
U.S. Coast Guard records show that 11 boats classified solely for diving — including eight in California — were given special exemptions from the 1996 safety standards, which were prompted by a series of fires and other accidents that had killed dozens in the previous 30 years. The grandfathering provision meant those boats didn’t have to make changes such as adding larger escape hatches and enhanced fire prevention systems.
An examination of boating records shows that 322 small passenger vessels nationwide built before 1996 are exempted from those rules. One-third of them are based in California.
The Coast Guard’s oversight has come under scrutiny after the Conception disaster, in which 33 divers and one crew member were trapped below deck and died while on a three-day excursion around the Channel Islands.
The Times reported last month that the Coast Guard repeatedly ignored National Transportation Safety Board recommendations to improve fire safety measures for small passenger boats for two decades. Three California members of Congress introduced legislation this month to require the vessels to have at least two escape exits, strengthen standards for fire alarm systems and create mandatory safety rules for the handling and storage of phones, cameras and other electronic devices with lithium-ion batteries.
The Times’ data analysis raised alarms with several in California‘s congressional delegation. Rep. Julia Brownley (D-Westlake Village) said in a statement that Congress “must eliminate the hazards posed by boats grandfathered in under outdated safety regulations.”
Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara) called The Times’ findings “concerning.”
The old safety standards paint “a clear picture of why we need immediate action to modernize our regulations,” he said in a statement. “I know we must take the necessary steps to ensure our vessels and waters are safe for all who use them.”
The 1996 rules require vessels to have an escape hatch of at least 32 inches wide and illuminated exit signs. The Conception, built in 1981, had an escape hatch that was only 24 inches wide, several federal regulators who requested anonymity in order to speak on the matter told The Times last month. It also did not have illuminated exit signs, though they are required for boats built after 1996.
Federal officials investigating the worst maritime disaster in modern California history immediately homed in on the functionality of the two exits in the area where passengers slept in stacked bunks beneath the waterline. NTSB investigator Jennifer Homendy told The Times in September that she was “taken aback” by the small size of the emergency escape hatches on the Conception’s sister vessel, adding that she thought it would be difficult for passengers to exit during an emergency in the dark.
A preliminary investigation of the Conception fire found major breakdowns in required safety procedures on the vessel owned by Truth Aquatics, including inadequate crew training and the absence of a roving night watch, which is required at all times while passenger bunks are occupied to alert people sleeping below deck of an emergency.
Of the eight diving vessels in Southern California that are exempted from the 1996 Coast Guard rules, five are docked in the Los Angeles-Long Beach area. Two are in Santa Barbara and one is in San Diego. Three additional grandfathered diving vessels are in Florida, records show. Each of the 11 vessels can accommodate between 12 and 49 overnight passengers. The three Florida dive boats are licensed to accommodate only 12 or 13 passengers, records show.
Should owners of any of the 322 grandfathered vessels nationwide make “any significant modifications,” those modifications would need to meet new regulations, Coast Guard Lt. Amy Midgett said in a statement.
In the weeks after the deadly Conception fire, Coast Guard leaders ordered the immediate inspection of hundreds of passenger vessels across the country. Numerous vessel captains told The Times that inspectors have asked boat operators to voluntarily make safety improvements. Two said the Coast Guard asked them to reduce the number of overnight passengers on their vessels.
Even before any new inspections, Ventura County dive boat captain Carl Mayhugh started looking for ways to make his 65-foot Magician safer for passengers. He said he wanted to do everything possible based on the lessons already emerging from the Conception fire.
The dive boat Magician, which was built in 1975, regularly takes scuba groups and biologists conducting federal studies to Santa Catalina Island and other areas. Mayhugh, a marine biologist who taught at the college level, said it became clear he would need a better fire-detection system.
“I don’t want to wake up with my boat on fire,” Mayhugh said. “I put in smoke detectors through the vessel. If one goes off, they all go off. I told everyone I knew in the industry about it. I know one boat with individual cabins put one in every cabin now.”
Additionally, the Coast Guard asked him to eliminate double bunks on multiday trips to reduce the number of overnight passengers from 22 to 14, which Mayhugh agreed to do. He also stopped letting passengers charge electronics between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. and now requires lithium-ion batteries, which experts have pointed to as a possible cause of the Conception fire, to be stored in fireproof LiPo bags, he said.
Jason Barrow, captain of the Island Diver in Panama City, Fla., said inspectors requested he add additional smoke detectors and “glow in the dark” exit signs in various parts of the 68-foot vessel, which was built in 1967. Inspectors visited his vessels several times since the Conception tragedy, Barrow said, noting the additions might have cost about $200.
Barrow voluntarily agreed to reduce his overnight passengers from 14 to 12 because inspectors didn’t think the bunks had enough clearance for passengers, he said. Barrow emphasized that he doesn’t do many overnight trips, because the diving clientele is different in the Sunshine State compared with the Golden State.
Specifically, he said, most trips in Florida involve spearfishing, and divers don’t cart loads of cameras and other electronic equipment that require charging on fishing trips. Barrow said he doesn’t know of any captains who are complaining about the measures to make boats safer.
“They want to make sure you’re running a safe operation,” Barrow said about the Coast Guard. “It wasn’t much to do.”
Not everyone agrees that sweeping regulations are needed for the industry. The captain and owner of a sailing vessel built in 1871, one of two built that year on the list of exempted boats, worries regulators or lawmakers could overreach in making new rules that might not be relevant for all boats in the class.
Noah Barnes captains the Stephen Taber in Maine, the oldest documented sailing vessel in continuous service in the United States and a national historic landmark. He said the 68-foot coasting schooner cannot be compared to a dive boat because it doesn’t have the same mechanics or equipment. Passengers bring few electronics, except for a camera and phone, on his excursions and have no need to charge multiple devices, Barnes said.
The Stephen Taber’s 12 cabins don’t have power outlets, but passengers charge camera batteries and phones in a dedicated area, Barnes said. Coast Guard inspectors asked him to add larger signs to show the emergency exits. He said he was glad to cooperate with inspectors because the additions improved safety.
“I would like for the Coast Guard to treat historic vessels as their own category,” he said. “They’re in a tough spot. Our needs are not the same as dive boats.”