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Crash highlights perils of night boating

Erica Blizzard was convicted of negligent homicide for failing to post a proper lookout

The manager of a New Hampshire marina was sentenced to at least six months in jail and must pay the state $4,000 to promote boating safety for driving her 37-foot powerboat into an island, resulting in the death of her best friend.

Erica Blizzard drove the Formula 370 Super Sport into a vertical granite outcropping on Diamond Island.

Erica Blizzard, 36, of Laconia, N.H., who manages Lakeport Landing Marina on Lake Winnipesaukee, suffered severe facial injuries in the June 2008 crash, which occurred at about 2:30 a.m. on Father's Day. Her friend Stephanie Beaudoin, 34, of Meredith, N.H., died, and Nicole Shinopules, 34, of Burlington, Mass., was injured when the Formula 370 Super Sport - powered with twin MerCruiser high-output 425-hp I/Os - slammed into Diamond Island on the southwestern portion of the 72-square-mile lake.

Under Belknap County (N.H.) Superior Court Judge Kathleen McGuire's April 21 ruling, Blizzard must pay more than $15,000 in restitution to Beaudoin's family and complete 200 hours of community service, according to the prosecutor, County Attorney James Carroll. The $4,000 will go to the state marine patrol for boating safety.

"After six months in jail, she can be considered for electronic monitoring outside of the jail," says Carroll, who spoke with Soundings after the sentencing. Blizzard's jail term doesn't start until June because she requires more facial surgery for injuries sustained in the accident, he says.

Carroll had requested that Blizzard serve one to three years in state prison, pay the same restitution, and that the judge revoke Blizzard's driving and boat-operation privileges for five years.

"I respect the judge's ruling," says Carroll. "I'm satisfied. When incidences like this occur, it is important that the state is proactive to ensure that our waterways are as safe as our roadways."

Blizzard spoke before the sentencing, according to published reports. "I couldn't possibly be punished more than the loss of my best friend and the anguish her family feels," she said. "All of this is secondary. I lost my best friend and that is something I will have to live with the rest of my life."

The accident occurred as the women headed south to a home owned by the Shinopules family on Sleepers Island after playing a Father's Day practical joke at Blizzard's father's waterfront home in the Pendleton Beach area, according to Beaudoin's father, Edgar Beaudoin.

"They played a prank on the father, and Stephanie was always part of it," says Beaudoin, 79, of Laconia, N.H. "They always went by boat."

A jury in March found her guilty of negligent homicide for failing to post a proper lookout. The jury was unable to reach a verdict on two other charges - a second count of negligent homicide, alleging Blizzard was operating under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and aggravated driving while intoxicated.

"It was negligent all the way," says Beaudoin, who adds that his daughter enjoyed boating on the lake but was not an experienced boater. "There's no two ways about it - total negligence and a poor choice of judgment, as far as I can see."

Lakeport Landing Marina in Laconia is a Formula dealer. The model Blizzard drove that night was a new 2008 demo with only 4.6 engine hours, says Lt. Tim Dunleavy of the New Hampshire Marine Patrol, the agency that investigated the accident.

The prosecution argued that Blizzard was running the boat at more than 30 mph and had a blood alcohol content of 0.15 - the legal limit in New Hampshire is 0.08 - according to Carroll. Blizzard's attorney, Jim Moir, says his client was not drunk and that the boat was traveling 15 to 20 mph.

"Just before the accident it went from being drizzly to very bad visibility," says Moir in an interview with Soundings. "She was navigating basically by the lights on the land, which she was very familiar with. All of sudden, all of the landmarks were gone. But she was quite confident she knew where she was, and from that point she slowed, got off plane and basically was proceeding by compass, thinking she knew where she was. Unfortunately she was about 100 feet off."

Stop and anchor

Beaudoin believes Blizzard should have simply stopped the boat when it started to rain hard and resumed the trip when visibility was better. "If she would have just parked the boat, that would have been the thing to do, no matter where she was," he says. "Find out how many feet of water [the boat] was in, drop the anchor, and ride it out till morning. It was 2, 3 o'clock in the morning when it happened. There was a place for people to sleep."

On the trip to Sleepers Island, Blizzard was battling heavy rain as she helmed the Formula, which had only a short windshield for weather protection, says Dunleavy.

It's a roughly nine-mile trip from Pendleton Beach to Sleepers Island. Blizzard was headed for a navigational light on Smith Point, but the weather worsened as she got closer to Diamond Island and she lost site of the light, says Dunleavy. The boat hit a vertical granite outcropping on the island's north side, he says.

"The hull-to-deck joint separated around about two-thirds of the boat," he says. "The entire bow was ripped off from about 3 feet forward of the windshield, from the deck all the way down to the keel."

Blizzard was standing at the helm, looking over the windshield, while Shinopules was next to Blizzard on the inboard portion of the two-person helm seat, according to Dunleavy. Beaudoin was near the centerline, just abaft the closed companionway door, sitting partially on the port-side settee, he says. Beaudoin was thrown into the door and broke her neck when the boat hit the granite; the two others struck the helm dash area, he says.

Speed on the lake

Lake Winnipesaukee is tough to navigate at night, with lights from the lake's 300 islands hampering visibility and causing some boat operators to confuse the mainland with the islands, says Dunleavy. "On Lake Winnipesaukee, when the sun goes down, if you are not an experienced navigator of the lake and know it, you can get in a lot of trouble because it looks so different after dark," he says.

The last fatal accident involving a large powerboat on the lake was in 2002, when a 36-foot Baja performance boat collided with a 20-foot Wellcraft at night, killing the smaller boat's driver. The Baja was traveling 28 mph. The skipper was convicted of negligent homicide for driving without a proper lookout and served several years in prison.

Powerboat speeds on Winnipesaukee - New Hampshire's largest lake - have been a hot-button issue. A two-year temporary speed limit law of 45 mph during the day and 25 mph at night expires at the end of the year, and the issue will be up for debate, says Dunleavy. "It is one of the most polarizing pieces of legislation that the state has seen in some time," he says.

At the time of the accident, Blizzard was president of the New Hampshire Recreational Boaters Association, which recently opposed speed limits on Winnipesaukee. Blizzard's father owns Lakeport Landing Marina, says Moir, Erica Blizzard's attorney. She grew up on the lake and is an experienced powerboater who holds the state-required New Hampshire boating license, says Moir.

Edgar Beaudoin says his daughter and Blizzard were very close, and he and his wife were fond of Blizzard. "Erica was very good to us," he says. "She would bring flowers to us every once in a while. Erica as we knew Erica was a very nice girl. ... She was Stephanie's friend, and friends don't abandon friends, even in death."

See related stories:

- 'So simple, so easy, yet so devastating'

- Safety takes a proactive approach

This article originally appeared in the June 2010 issue.