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Capsize, toddler death leave questions

Sixteen-foot catamaran was sailing off Westport, Conn., with four aboard when tragedy struck

Sixteen-foot catamaran was sailing off Westport, Conn., with four aboard when tragedy struck

A gust of wind capsized a 16-foot Hobie Cat Getaway, killing a three-year-old girl on a trip in late August between CockenoeIsland and Westport, Conn.

Alexandra Vitale of Brooklyn, N.Y., was onboard the boat with her 6- and 3-year-old cousins, and sailing instructor Katherine Durie, 18, when she died.

“The autopsy came back and verified that the cause of death was accidental, but as for the incident it is still under investigation,” says Lt. David Kassay. “We are still talking to people at this point.”

Average recorded winds at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Station in nearby Bridgeport were an average 7.4 mph, gust peak winds at 22 mph, and sustained winds at 15 mph.

The Westport Marine Division received a mayday call from Barry Schwimmer, 51, via VHF Channel 16 at around 10:30 a.m. when he came upon the troubled catamaran from his powerboat. He motored over to help. All passengers were wearing life jackets, including Vitale’s cousins, Andrew Howell, 6, and William Howell, 3.

“He was by himself on the boat and he came upon it shortly after it went over. That’s when we got the call,” says Kassay. “Durie and the six-year-old were hanging onto the boat and told him that the two other children had drifted away. He then caught sight of two life jackets a short distance away, dropped anchor and jumped in.”

Meanwhile, Westport police deployed two cutters to collect Schwimmer, the three children, and Durie. It arrived on the scene shortly after 10:30 a.m. They were all taken to Compo Beach Marina, located a short distance from the sailing school. Vitale, who was unresponsive, was transported via ambulance to Norwalk, which was en route to the marina as the police cutters arrived. Meanwhile, a police car arrived at the LongshoreSailingSchool in South Westport to notify the child’s mother, Andrea Vitale, of what had occurred and to take her to the hospital. Alexandra Vitale was pronounced dead by asphyxiation by submersion after several attempts were made to revive her.

“There’s a lot we are still investigating about this case. We don’t know how far away they drifted from the Hobie Cat or how long it had been capsized before Schwimmer got there,” says Kassay. “We do know Vitale was spending time in her family’s summer home with her relatives.”

On Aug. 29, more than 200 people filled the Quaker Meeting Hall in downtown Brooklyn, paying their respects to Vitale and her family. The family has declined speaking to the press about the tragedy, and at press time had taken no legal action against the sailing school. Kassay says the Hobie Cat was towed back to the school and inspected, but no safety violations were found.

“This is a very unique and tragic occurrence,” says Doug Jones, avid sailor and fleet captain of the Milford Yacht Club in Milford, Conn., who oversees the junior sailing instruction program. “It is certainly not typical. This could’ve happened on any boat, there are none that are inherently safe or unsafe. Every boat can capsize, no matter how well-built it is.”

Jones, who owns a Freedom 21 as well as a 14-foot Pixel, says the Milford Yacht Club has an age restriction of eight for sailing lessons, which the Westport school also claims on its site. He says students are first given a swim test and a capsize test.

“There are children who do not respond well to capsizing, so we do the test to understand that right away and take away some of the fear children may have,” says Jones. “Though this is a tragedy, this wouldn’t affect my program, since we always go by the standard safety checklist given by the Junior Safety Association of Long Island Sound.”

As the investigation continues, Westport First Selectman Gordon Joseloff has ordered a review of the LongshoreSailingSchool, which operates under a town lease, according to a report on the town’s Web site, .

“Clearly, a lot of questions remain to be answered,” Joseloff said in the report. “In the meantime, it is imperative that all those who use this facility at the town-owned LongshoreClubPark are assured that lessons are conducted in a safe and dependable manner.”

A LongshoreSailingSchool spokesperson was not available for comment.