It’s that time of year when we must relinquish our monopoly on the local waterways and share them with the recreational boater for another season. As we do, there is a need to give both sides of the equation a heads up and reality check. This story by writer Michael Daly from the New York Times, first published in November of 1981, is a classic tragedy of ignorance and circumstance coming together to create disaster. The professional community never wishes to see anyone get hurt, but it still happens in spite of our best efforts to avoid dangerous encounters with the recreational community. The recreational boater frequently puts himself in harm’s way and is often blissfully (sometimes fatally) ignorant of the consequences of his behavior while “out on the water for the day”.
The recreational community certainly has a right to enjoy the marine environment, it’s just that some/many don’t have a really clear idea what it means to be a mariner or possess the basic skills one must have to truly enjoy it safely.
The story of the Karen E. is a lesson taught and remembered by the mariners in and around NY Harbor. Initially the tug captain and mate of the David Mc Allister were demonized for their part in the sinking of the Karen E. and loss of 5 people including the yacht owner’s 10 year old daughter and his friend’s 9 year old daughter.
The tug David Mc Allister was towing a loaded cement barge off Long Sand Shoal in the Long Island Sound bound for Boston.
The Karen E. had developed electrical problems which left her owner ill-equipped to navigate in diminishing visibility. He had contact with another vessel and calls for help were acknowledged by the Coast Guard and a local marina. But, rather than heed the advice he received by radio to hold a particular course, he wandered off without any clear idea what to do.
In the fog, the tug David Mc Allister was sighted on an easterly heading. The Karen E.’s owner decided to bring his boat alongside the tug to ask for help. His situation was reported to the Coast Guard again and he was summarily warned of the tow as he pulled away from the David. It’s believed he ended up running over the towline and locking his vessel in the path of the loaded barge. He lost his wife and 10 year old daughter, along with his friend and his wife and 9 year old daughter. After swimming for roughly 8 hours in Eastern Long Island Sound the owner ( the only survivor) was helped ashore and taken to a hospital.
The owner of the Karen E. insisted the tug’s wash “sucked” his vessel into the path of the tow. Tests conducted with the same tug and similar vessel to try and re-construct the incident (see photo above) failed to prove his assertion, in fact the opposite was seen. The small vessel was pushed away by the tug’s quick-water and out of the path of the tow.
The claims of indifference on the part of the tug crew made for some dramatic reading but the hearings that followed drew a different picture of an ill-equipped and panicked boater who made a every attempt to blame others for his own failures. Although the owner of the Karen E. was eventually charged with negligence, those charges were dropped. It’s not difficult to agree with USCG deciding he had suffered enough harm already. The drama was followed closely by those of us in the towing industry and this story was discussed around many a galley table. It’s claimed that charges were filed against the tug crew for negligence and these men were sanctioned for their part in this tragedy, I can’t find any evidence of the USCG’s actions in this regard. That’s not to say they weren’t, only that I can’t find them.
Hindsight is the only lens with which we can view the owner of the Karen E.’s actions, I believe Mr. Daly’s article should be required reading for professionals and amateurs alike. There’s just no way to over-emphasize how important it is to know what you’re doing when you leave that marina with a boatload of folks looking for a relaxing and safe afternoon’s cruise. The owner’s testimony showed he had an inadequate knowledge of his boat’s systems and backups and committed an even greater sin of ignoring professional advice in the face of the emergency. He should have deferred to expertise.
Those of us who work out here year-round don’t want to be party to any incident, much less one that could destroy a whole family. It’s in everyone’s best interests to understand the reality of being out on a boat and relying/depending on your skill, mechanical ability, and good judgment to make it a safe voyage. Your life is truly on-the-line.
October 20, 2010; At the request of the families involved, the names of the victims and the key figures have been edited from this article. This revision is offered as is and I represent it as a parable of caution.