Both crews faulted in '91 boat mishap Sloop was sunk in wreck with tug


WASHINGTON -- A collision last year between a Naval Academy sailboat and a coal barge being pushed by a tugboat in the Chesapeake Bay could have been avoided by crews on both vessels, the National Transportation Safety Board ruled yesterday.

While saying the tugboat Sun Coast should have stopped when a crew member saw what he believed to be a sailboat on his radar screen, the board criticized academy crew members for not monitoring emergency radio channels.

Investigators had proposed pointing the finger at the tugboat operator and only mentioning the mistakes by the Navy crew as contributing to the April 21, 1991, crash off Cove Point, 50 miles south of Annapolis.

But board member John K. Lauber pushed to have the nine midshipmen and three officers aboard the 60-foot sloop American Promise share the blame for the early morning accident, which left the famous sailboat on the bottom of the bay.

Dodge Morgan of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, donated the $1.25 million sailboat to the academy in 1986 after he sailed it on a record-breaking solo voyage around the world.

The American Promise was returning to the academy from a two-day training mission in the southern bay the morning of the collision.

The tugboat operator, The Robert Dann Co., of Chesapeake City, agreed last month to pay the academy $245,000 to repair the damaged sailboat, which was salvaged four days after the accident.

Chester J. Szychlinski, a marine accident investigator for the NTSB, told the five-member board a tugboat crew member first saw the sailboat on his radar screen about five minutes before the 2:05 a.m. collision.

He said the crew member tried to radio the sloop three times on two different emergency channels but never got a response. A midshipman was listening to the radio, but had it tuned to the wrong channel. By the time the sailboat was visible in the rain squall, impact was only seconds away, Mr. Szychlinski said.

But the investigator said the assistant officer in charge on the American Promise saw the barge 20 minutes before impact, but concluded that there was no danger and continued to work on untangling a rigging problem.

"Had the [officer in charge] on the American Promise correctly assessed the risk of collision and taken appropriate action by radio, the Sun Coast's operator could have been alerted in time to maneuver to avoid the sailing vessel," the NTSB said.

The Navy is exempt from FCC rules requiring crews on certain boats or sailing vessels to monitor emergency channels, but the board agreed that was no excuse.

"It is shocking that a recreational sailor should know better what to do than a member of the Navy," said Terry Baxter, managing director of the board, which is recommending the exemption be rescinded.

The safety board also ruled that the Sun Coast did not have a properly trained lookout and faulted the Navy for having what may be a faulty radar reflector, which blurred the signal received by the Sun Coast.

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