Making a Living in the Wake of the Pelican Disaster

David Ryan is a boat builder, USCG licensed master captain, and a sometimes writer and filmmaker. He is the owner and skipper of Sailing Montauk and chief builder at The Montauk Catamaran Company. You can follow him on Twitter @CaptDavidRyan

The fishing vessel Pelican, dangerously overloaded

From the Wikipedia entry:

On September 1, 1951, as the Fisherman's Special emptied its passengers, 62 fares climbed aboard the PELICAN, plus its Captain, Eddie Carroll and mate. The 42 foot PELICAN left Fishangrila at 7:30 AM, carrying 64 passengers and crew, which was grossly in excess of its safe carrying capacity.

By the time the PELICAN was towed back to Montauk later that night she was capsized and half-sunk. 45 of the 64 souls who departed on her that morning were dead, including her skipper.

The Pelican Disaster* made national headlines. Life magazine covered the story, complete with photos of the half-sunk boat, the make-shift morgue needed to house so many dead, and grieving relatives.

Not surprisingly, there was also an investigation. An excerpt from the original US Coast Guard Marine Safety Board report on the incident:

"45. The board is of the opinion that interest developed in this case because of the large number of lives lost and the clear-cut issue as to the decisive cause of the disaster -- the overloading of the PELICAN with resultant loss of 45 lives (this under the sole responsibility of the operator who had complied with all effective laws but nevertheless as a result of poor judgment or ignorance was not prevented from taking risks which resulted in loss of life) -- should be used to bring to the attention of the appropriate committees of Congress the loop-holes and unsatisfactory provisions of the present laws which permit these conditions to exist.

"46. The board is of the opinion that the most important single provision of the law which permitted the overloading of the PELICAN is the exemption of vessels under 15 tons from the provisions of the inspection laws which would have limited the passenger carrying capacity of the PELICAN on the basis of deck space available, with due consideration for the vessel's stability further, the inspection law would have required the stowage of life preservers to be marked and to come under specific requirements as to the accessibility of life preservers, rather than the more general and less effective provisions of the motor boat laws under whose provisions the PELICAN operated.

"47. The board is of the opinion that legislation intended to prevent the recurrence of a disaster like the PELICAN should be carefully considered so that it does not become an onerous burden to the thousands of owners of smaller craft nor on the administrative agencies charged with administering the law. A law which is too broad in its scape and whose provisions are not carefully considered may do little to improve conditions because of public resistance to controls not demonstrably necessary for safety, aggravated be the administrative overloads which may be placed on presently fully employed staffs.

"48. The board is of the opinion that the extension of the present inspections powers of the Coast Guard, intended to correct this situation, should be limited to vessels carrying passengers for hire.

"49. The board is of the opinion that vessels carrying a limited number of passengers should be exempt from the new provisions of the law.

"50. The board is of the opinion that the cut-off point between exempt and non-exempt vessels not be on the basis of tonnage but should be on the basis of the number of passengers carried. The exemption on the basis of tonnage is completely unrealistic in that it places no restriction on the number of passengers that may be carried on a smaller and presumably less capable vessel while it does restrict the number carried on the larger and presumably more capable vessel.

In 1957, "T-Boat" regulations were put into effect. "T-boat" because the rules covering them are laid down in subchapter T of Title 46 of the Code of Federal Regulation. From that point forward, vessels carrying seven or more  paying passengers became subject to rigorous federal oversight (via the Coast Guard) for their design, construction, outfitting, and operation.

Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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