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Coast Guard orders stricter scrutiny of wood boats


The Coast Guard has ordered its officers nationwide to perform more rigorous inspections of wooden boats in hopes of catching the sort of flaws that may have contributed to the sinking of the El Toro II.

The two-page national "safety alert" revises inspection rules to require, rather than recommend, that inspectors pay particular attention to the nails and bolts in boats more than 15 years old.

Inspectors "must" remove any nails, screws or bolts they suspect may be deteriorated, the notice says, and pull out wooden planks if they believe this is necessary. Under the order, pulling nails "must" be part of regular hull inspections.

As part of annual inspections of wooden boats 15 years old or older, inspectors also are ordered to take a ride in the boat to see how it performs in the water.

"We were concerned about the accident that occurred on the El Toro II," Capt. Michael Williams, chief of the Coast Guard Merchant Vessel Inspection and Documentation Division in Washington, said yesterday.

He said the alert was issued Monday, making mandatory inspection procedures that had been recommended.

The Coast Guard's 30-year-old inspection regulations for passenger boats similar to the El Toro II have come under scrutiny since the sinking on Dec. 5 in which three people died, and the subsequent public inquiry by the Coast Guard.

The El Toro II, a 32-year-old wooden boat, passed a Coast Guard dry dock inspection in March and its regular annual inspection in April.

Days before the accident, an insurance inspector reported that the boat was so poorly maintained it was unfit to operate or carry passengers. He didn't tell the owners, however, because he says he was led to believe the boat would not be going out again until spring.

Neither the Coast Guard nor the insurance surveyor saw the trouble that may have caused the El Toro II to take on water and sink in the Chesapeake Bay: three loose planks on the bottom of the hull's port side.

During the weeklong inquiry in Baltimore and St. Mary's County, corroded nails from the El Toro II hull were introduced as evidence. Marine surveyors testified that the boat's electrical system appeared to have been improperly grounded, which could have accelerated the natural corrosion of the nails.

The safety alert -- aimed at passenger vessels under 100 gross tons -- is designed to spot such flaws.

As part of the new effort, Coast Guard officers in charge of marine inspections at 43 stations around the country are being asked to check records for the locations and maintenance of all wooden hulled boats in this class in their districts.

Coast Guard officers also are being ordered to conduct spot checks on hull maintenance for wooden boats more than 15 years old.

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