While police and the Coast Guard try to determine why a Silverton 34 capsized on its way home from July Fourth fireworks on Long Island, drowning three children in the cabin, the accident has renewed calls for a New York law requiring adults to pass a safety course before operating a powerboat.
Nassau County (N.Y.) Police, who are heading the investigation, say they are looking at overloading and mechanical or equipment failure, such as cracked through-hulls or hoses or malfunctioning trim tabs, as the cause of the capsizing and sinking of the 1984 Silverton convertible near the mouth of Oyster Bay. “The boat could have sunk for many reasons,” says Det. Lt. John Azzata, chief of the Nassau police homicide squad. He says alcohol was not a factor.
Twenty-seven people were on the boat when it capsized in 21 feet and drifted more than a half-mile before sinking in 60-plus feet. Police say at least 10 kids were on board, with some estimates at 14 or more. Investigators have said the boat lacked the required number of life jackets, but the owner’s attorney, James Mercante of the Manhattan firm Rubin, Fiorella & Friedman, says there were “plenty of life jackets — certainly more than 27.”
How did it happen?
Kandi Won capsized shortly after 10 p.m., spilling 24 of the 27 people on the boat into the water. The three who died were cousins David Aureliano, 12, and Harlie Treanor, 11, and family friend Victoria Gaines, 7. Sal Aureliano, David’s uncle, says he was steering the boat for the owner, his brother-in-law and Harlie’s father, Kevin Treanor, when it hit a large wake.
“A wake got us and it turned the boat around. It just turned the boat,” Aureliano told News 12 Long Island. “I didn’t see it. It was dark. It just happened. I didn’t think a 34-footer would turn. It just bellied up. … The next thing I know … everybody was in the water. Chaos.”
“Victoria was in the cabin because we felt that was the safest place,” Victoria’s mother, Lisa Gaines, told Matt Lauer in an interview on NBC’s “Today” show. The children had been playing cards. “I was just screaming her name to see if she came up because I knew she was below us. I was screaming her name just to see if anyone would yell out that they had her.”
Gaines says she and her 12-year-old son were “on the deck upstairs” on a bench behind the skipper when the “boat started to lean and it didn’t recover, and then it just went over.”
Asked how many people were aboard, Gaines says passengers were “on the back, on the front, upstairs, in the cabin. I really didn’t see all of them at one time to know exactly how many were on.”
She says she can’t swim and that her son saved her life. “I was going under and if it wasn’t for him — I don’t swim — so he grabbed me and said, ‘I got you, Mom.’ ” The boy helped his mother get to a chair that was floating nearby.
“Believe me, we tried to get in the boat for those kids,” says Candi Treanor, an aunt of two of the victims. “It was just heartbreaking.”
She says the boat was leaving Oyster Bay, along with nearly 1,000 others, and heading back to its berth at the Harbor Boating Club in Huntington. A thunderstorm was approaching as the fireworks ended, but the storm did not reach the harbor until after the boat had capsized, witnesses say. “It was a bad wave and it capsized us,” Treanor says. “There were a lot of boats coming back; then there were lightning bolts. The wave was tremendous. It just swallowed us up. There was no warning.”
Other boaters quickly plucked the 24 survivors from the water. One of them, Sammy Galasso, turned his boat’s spotlight on and threw every life jacket he had into the water. “Everybody was panicking,” says Galasso, whose family pulled more than 15 people from the water. The search quickly expanded, with the Coast Guard, police and Oyster Bay Town Bay Constables, fire departments and marine towers arriving with boats and helicopters.
A week after the accident, FBI divers using air bags raised the boat at the end of two days of effort hampered by poor visibility and the stern being sunk deep in silt.
Marine safety experts, boaters and others immediately seized on the number of people on the boat as the reason the boat capsized. The Coast Guard sets maximum capacity standards only for boats smaller than 20 feet. Some builders make voluntary recommendations for larger boats.
The builder, Silverton Marine Corp. of Millville, N.J., declared bankruptcy earlier this year but was bought July 13 by New Jersey boatbuilder Egg Harbor Yachts. Nyla Deputy, creator and owner of the Silverton Owners Club website, which was authorized by the company, has owned several Silvertons but not the 34C. She says there was no owners’ manual for that boat in 1984, Kandi Won’s model year. In 1989, she says, the company redesigned the boat and widened the beam from 12.5 to 13 feet, increasing its occupancy. But it was only in the early 1990s that the company offered an owner’s manual.
On Page 2, it recommends a maximum occupancy of 10 people, or 2,227 pounds. The older version was smaller, so the occupancy numbers for that model would have been lower, she says.
But Mercante, the maritime attorney representing Treanor and his insurance company, says he doesn’t think the 34-footer was overloaded with 27 people on board. “I don’t think the boat was overcrowded,” he says. “The people on the boat were dispersed and not on one side. There’s no owner’s manual for 1984, so there’s no manufacturer’s recommendations for capacity. There is also no placard aboard the vessel identifying any maximum weight or persons capacity. The owners of the 1984 boats were given sales brochures that say nothing about capacity. All they say is that there are sleeping accommodations for six.
“The capacity of a vessel is contingent upon many factors,” he says. He says the weight and occupancy recommendations when they are made are based on the boat having full fuel, water and holding tanks, and all equipment on board. He could not say how full the tanks were on Kandi Won. “A 1984 Silverton has seating capacity for 14 people” and room for more people around the boat, he says.
U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, called on the Coast Guard to create a rule to set passenger limits for boats 20 feet and larger. “It doesn’t make sense that we require capacity limits be posted for everything from ballrooms to classrooms, but not recreational vessels,” he says.
Boating safety experts and marine dealers say putting 27 people on a 34-foot Silverton leaves no margin for error. “I just can’t imagine 27 people on that boat,” says Larry Weiss, the Long Island spokesman for the U.S. Power Squadrons and the owner of a boat similar to Kandi Won.
“Our capacity regulations for recreational boats only go up to 20 feet [because] you rarely see a 34-foot boat capsizing unless it’s really bad weather,” says Philip Cappel, a recreational safety administrator for the Coast Guard.
He says builders normally also do not issue capacity guidelines for boats larger than 20 feet, leaving the question to the discretion of the operator.
Safety experts say the number and weight of the people on board is a factor in a boat’s stability, as is where they are on the vessel. “That’s a lot of people,” Cappel says of the 27 aboard the Silverton. “But in calm weather, a boat that size, if it’s loaded properly ... shouldn’t really be that big of a problem. Too many people up higher, on the main deck or up on the flying bridge, is going to cause a problem.”
A boat’s stability is determined, in part, by its center of gravity. More weight up higher makes it top-heavy and more likely to capsize. Carl Darenberg, a broker at Montauk (N.Y.) Marine Basin who has sold Silverton 34s, says that “with a boat like that, usually your maximum would be about 10 people.”
Safety advocates point to the accident as proof of the need for required education courses, which is already the law in neighboring New Jersey and Connecticut. “Long Island waters are very busy,” Weiss says. “When there’s a special event like July Fourth fireworks, you need even more to know how to interact safely and courteously with other boaters. Good safety education and solid experience enable you to deal with these issues more competently and safely.”
In New York, only people younger than 18 who operate a boat without an adult present or operators of personal watercraft are required to pass a safety class. Twenty-five states have laws requiring boating safety classes for adults. “In order to drive a car you need all kinds of training, learner’s permit, written test, road tests and then you get a license,” Weiss says. “There’s a tremendous disregard for the rules on the water and a tremendous disregard for common sense.”
When it comes to boating in New York, “you or I could just go down to a boat shop, buy a boat and go,” says Vincent T. Pica II, chief of staff for the Coast Guard Auxiliary flotilla that includes Long Island.
A bill by N.Y. state Sen. John Flanagan that would have changed that did not pass in the most recent session. Suffolk County (N.Y.) legislator Steve Stern says he will introduce a bill in August that requires all boaters in the county to take a safety course.
“There’s a lot more people who need to take boating-safety education classes,” says Scott Croft, a spokesman for BoatUS. “Unfortunately, it’s not mandatory in New York state.”
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This article originally appeared in the September 2012 issue.