Ethan Allen had previous close call - Soundings Online

Ethan Allen had previous close call

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The tour boat, which capsized last October on Lake George, almost broached four decades earlier

The tour boat, which capsized last October on Lake George, almost broached four decades earlier

The Dyer 40 Ethan Allen, which capsized last October on Lake George, N.Y., killing 20 passengers, gave an operator a scare 39 years earlier when he got caught in choppy waters on Connecticut’s ThamesRiver with 30 to 40 passengers aboard.

Stanley Wilusz, now a retired Air Force pilot working in the defense industry, was a schoolteacher in 1966 with a summer job piloting the powerboat — then known as Double Dolphin — on “See the Submarines” tours out of Groton, Conn.

It was the weekend of the annual Harvard-Yale rowing regatta, recalls 63-year-old Wilusz, and Double Dolphin had been chartered by a group of people staying at the Griswold Hotel at the mouth of the Thames on Long Island Sound. “We went up and watched the boat races,” says Wilusz.

Double Dolphin was configured in most ways as it was last October as the Ethan Allen, Wilusz says. In particular, the deck was flush with the gunwale. (Some naval architects familiar with the typical configuration of a Dyer 40 have assumed the deck was modified by Ethan Allen’s owner. Compared with a lower deck, these experts have noted, the higher deck would raise the boat’s center of gravity, making it less stable.) There were two rows of park-bench-style seats, one port and one starboard. The benches had steel frames with wooden slats, and each would seat two adults and a child.

There was a pipe railing along the gunwales, the top high enough for passengers to rest their elbows on as they sat on the benches, Wilusz recalls. (Ethan Allen had a solid half-wall in place of the railing.) And there was a pipe that arched across the deck near the bow to support speakers. There was no canopy, so the boat didn’t take tourists to the submarine base up the Thames on rainy days, he says. A substantial wooden canopy had been erected on Ethan Allen by its Lake George operator, Shoreline Cruises, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

Wilusz says he was in his first of two seasons as a Double Dolphin skipper in the summer of ’66 when he took the charter to the regatta. He was 23 years old but had been a licensed captain since he was 18. He says he learned to walk aboard his father’s charter fishing boat, a Wally 55. “I can remember being very, very little,” he says. “My father took me everywhere.”

The elder Wilusz had started his charter business before World War II and resumed it after the war. “He had a very, very successful charter business,” Wilusz says. “Mostly in the springtime it was cod and pollock out of Long Island, and the summer was tuna off Montauk, and in fall, bluefish and stripers.” Wilusz accompanied his father often, and the last trip they made was right before Thanksgiving.

With his experience and his captain’s license, Wilusz was hired the first year the Whaling City Dock and Dredge Co. bought the Dyer 40. The submarine tours were a pet project of company owner Clarence Sharpe, Wilusz says. He remembers at one point seeing the boat tied to the company’s dock, undergoing a Coast Guard stability test, with sandbags being placed on the starboard side.

“I remember they induced a great deal of heel in the boat with those sandbags,” he says. “I asked what was going on and was told the Coast Guard was doing a stability test on the boat. That was before the boat went into operation. It wasn’t licensed to carry passengers until all that was done.”

When Wilusz took over the boat, he became aware of its characteristics. He noticed that when passengers boarded, the boat would dip to the side. And when he was operating the boat with a load, he says he had to steer off the waves on more than one occasion.

“The boat was slow to respond and exhibited excessive heel,” says Wilusz. “Fortunately, the passengers remained seated in place, and the drink coolers on deck did not slide.

“I think the boats were licensed for 44, 45 [passengers]” he says. “We would fill them up, and they would sit on the park benches, and the weight always was well-distributed. The round bottom tended to roll a little more than normal, but it was never anything that you would call scary.”

On the day of the Harvard-Yale regatta, Wilusz says, the passengers had brought along coolers for drinks and sandwiches provided by their hotel. They watched the regatta until it had ended.

“Coming back there was just a mob scene,” he says. “We’re talking a lot of boats, which created a tremendous wave action, much greater than we ever normally experienced. I’m heading south, just downstream from Electric Boat Company. I was probably a quarter mile off the [Groton] shoreline.”

The waves weren’t quite a beam sea, and they started Double Dolphin rolling. “The bow started turning a bit,” says Wilusz. “She wanted to turn herself to the port slightly, which exposed the right quarter.” Passengers were shifting in their seats when “all of a sudden, it just started going over,” he says — about the same sensation as when a sailboat broaches.

Wilusz says he was able to steer down off the wave and kind of get control over it. “I remember commenting to the guys when I got back to the dock,” he says. “I said, ‘Man, I just had an interesting experience on the boat.’ ”

He ran Double Dolphin the following summer before entering the Air Force and never encountered the same problem. “But it always stuck in my mind that the damned boat had that tendency,” he says.

Reflecting on the changes that were made to the boat, Wilusz suggests that “if the deck was down, say, flush with the bilge area where the waterline would be,” the boat probably wouldn’t have capsized. “The center of gravity would be lower,” he says. “But you’d have an engine box taking up deck space. There were a lot of reasons for having that deck.”

Had the Double Dolphin been fitted with the large canopy that the Ethan Allen had, Wilusz says, “In my gut, it tells me I would not have been able to recover that boat.”

In January the NTSB reported that it was conducting tests involving Ethan Allen’s Cummins engine, Hypro engine coolant pump and canopy to determine whether these items had an impact on the accident.

Naval architect Bruce Johnson, a retired NavalAcademy professor and a vessel stability expert, notes that soon after Ethan Allen sank with 47 passengers on board, the NTSB conducted a stability test on an identical vessel. A dozen 55-gallon barrels filled with water were loaded on the boat to represent passengers. When only a few of the barrels were moved toward one side the boat began to heel dangerously, and the test was halted. Johnson says that test alone showed that the boat, which had been licensed by the State of New York to carry 48 passengers, was unstable with such a load, regardless of what might be shown by the new tests.