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.

Or put another way, Uninspected Passenger Vessel (aka 6-pack) is kind of a wild-west, seat of the pants designation. It puts the burden on the skipper to maintain his vessel and operate it properly, and on his paying customers to exercise their judgement about whether or not they should even step aboard in the first place. And whatever happens, people are only going to get killed six at a time.

By contrast, an Inspected Vessel is more like a Greyhound bus. When you get on a Greyhound bus, you don't think "Gee, I hope the tires are properly inflated. I wonder if the brake system has been properly maintained? I wonder if the chassis is rusting out? I wonder if the driver knows how to drive this model of bus?" No, you expect that someone is looking after these things, and you expect that there's some sort of regulatory regime making sure they are. Our transportation system would look very different if you had to do your own "due diligence" every time you hopped on a bus, or climbed aboard an airplane, or got on the Staten Island Ferry.

Last Summer I ran our sloop S/V INTEMPERANCE*  as an Uninspected Passenger  (six-pack) Vessel. My USCG Master Captains license qualifies me to run inspected boats, but the economies of scale to have INTEMPERANCE surveyed and outfitted in accordance with Inspected Passenger regulations didn't pencil out, so we ran her as a six pack.

That meant our regulatory overhead was low, but our earnings were limited, and demand for our outings soon exceeded what we could offer. We regularly turned away larger groups, or declined to add passengers to our trip roster when adding them would have put us over our six passenger limit.

Of course we followed the (not really enforced in Montauk) law because it's the law, but we also followed the law for the same reason we carried liability insurance: because we have something to lose.

We live in Montauk. We have children in the school. Our daughters car-pool to their ballet lessons with children of a family that runs an Inspected Passenger Vessel. Running pirate trips with an illegal passenger count would be a slap in their face, and a slap in the face of the rest of my neighbors who make their livings running boats. Running illegal trips would make me feel ashamed.

Of course shame has it's limits as a regulating force, but my and my wife's good fortune provides additional incentive.

Mostly because of our demographic placement we've had preposterously good luck with our real estate purchases, and we've managed to parlay that good luck into a tidy nest egg. We don't need Barack Obama to threaten us with a penalty to be motivated to buy health insurance, and we don't need the threat of a Coast Guard visit to keep us in compliance with the six pack limit. Compliance with the relevant regulations is a condition of our liability insurance, liability insurance is what protects our family finances, and so we complied.


Of course not all economic actors are as embedded in the markets and communities in which they conduct commerce. In my next post I'm going to talk about Progressive Auto Insurance's Snapshot product, Montauk's pirate sailing operations, and why I think Jay Rosen is wrong when he says that the internet weakens the authority of The Press. Thanks for reading!