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Fast ferry accident raises concerns

A report says that its skipper had become complacent about running in reduced visibility

A report says that its skipper had become complacent about running in reduced visibility

Four Massachusetts boaters seemed to have no luck the night of Aug. 13, 2005. One of their boats had broken down, and while their other vessel was towing the first a mooring line got caught in the propeller. In the gathering darkness an intense squall was approaching.

They anchored their two disabled vessels, not quite sure where in the West Gut off Quincy Bay they were, according to a Coast Guard report. But the worst was still headed their way — and fast. A high-speed ferry, traveling 25 to 30 knots, was on a course that would intersect the fast-moving storm. In fact, the Coast Guard report says the ferry captain maintained his speed, even when visibility dropped to 15 feet.

If the ferry captain was blinded by the storm, the four boaters were not. They whistled and screamed as they watched the big catamaran speed toward them, according to the Coast Guard. At the last minute, Nicole Crispo jumped from her boat. Her husband and two other men on the boats were knocked into the water when the 121-foot Nora Vittoria hit. The 23-foot Chris-Craft owned by Crispo and her husband, Jeffrey, was partially sunk. The 36-foot lobster boat Laina Lou, owned by Steven Crispo — Jeffrey’s brother — was sunk immediately, and Steven and a friend, Dana Gagne, were ejected.

“The master’s negligent operation of the [passenger vessel] Nora Vittoria contributed in great part to the resulting collision,” a Coast Guard report of the collision concludes. “Evidence indicates that the master … made deliberate decisions to [violate] the following established navigation rules and procedures,” the report says, listing five specific operating violations. The report says, “Fatigue of the master and the crew was a contributing factor.”

It has been more than a decade since the first high-speed ferries were launched. While the industry has grown, doubling in the last 10 years, there still are only about 50 of the vessels working in a few ports from Boston to Seattle, according to one expert. And for the most part, these vessels have good safety records, says Marc Cruder, a retired Coast Guard commander who now, as a civilian, is a traveling senior marine inspector for the agency.

“There is more risk in avoiding recreational go-fast boats operated by people with no training and questionable blood alcohol content … and the ridiculous wakes of unable-to-plane floating RVs on the powerboat market today,” says Cruder.

Nonetheless, the Coast Guard is “particularly tuned in” to passenger vessels that can travel more than 30 knots loaded, he says. Operators of vessels such as the Nora Vittoria are required to provide better training and operations manuals than those used on slower boats and to have more sophisticated navigational equipment, he says. In the case of the Nora Vittoria, Cruder says, “There were things that shouldn’t have happened.”

Worries about those very things caused some Long Island Sound boaters to form a task force in 1998, worried that high-speed ferries planned by a Mashantucket Pequot Indian tribe casino would wreak havoc among recreational boaters. “We had about 150,000 boaters on Long Island Sound who were very nervous,” recalls John Craine, chairman of the High Speed Ferry Safety Task Force of Long Island Sound (the waterway between Connecticut and Long Island, N.Y.). He says the purpose of the task force was to “at least … make sure that the operators knew where the recreational boaters were going to be, and vice versa.”

The casino ferries no longer run, and there is now only one regularly scheduled high-speed ferry crossing Long Island Sound between Connecticut and Long Island. There is another that runs between Connecticut and Block Island, R.I., for part of the year, according to task-force members, some of whom now are convinced that high-speed vessels can be operated safely and without endangering recreational boaters. The four Massachusetts boaters, however, might not share that opinion. The Coast Guard, which was considering leveling charges in that case, found in its examination that both the Nora Vittoria’s master and the vessel’s owner, Boston Harbor Cruises, failed in their operation of the ferry.

“Operational culture, training and company policies contributed in part to this collision,” the report says. “The investigation revealed numerous latent, unsafe conditions and practices in the operation of high-speed ferries by Boston Harbor Cruises.”

Specifically, the report says that ferry operators have become complacent and “developed a false sense of safety in reduced visibility at high speed” due to the “excellent maneuverability, quick stopping distance, and high quality of navigational equipment on board.”

The report adds, “Company managers have become dangerously overconfident of the ability of the masters to operate vessels at high speed in less-than-ideal conditions. In the last five years the Coast Guard has received numerous complaints from the public and other port operators, raising concerns about the perceived unsafe operation of high-speed ferries in the Boston and Providence [R.I.] area. The Coast Guard repeatedly has requested that Boston Harbor Cruises address safety concerns regarding safe speed, use of sound signals and the risk of collision.” The report says the accident “demonstrates that the company has not taken sufficient corrective action to remedy these safety concerns.”

Boston Harbor Cruises failed to return several phone calls asking for comment on the incident. Soundings received the Coast Guard report in June following a Freedom of Information Act request.

The following account of the accident was gleaned from news reports and the Coast Guard investigation.

Nicole and Jeffrey Crispo and Gagne left Quincy, Mass., early that August afternoon on the Chris-Craft and arrived at Peddocks Island, east of Quincy, about 1 p.m. for a cookout. Headed for the same picnic, Steven Crispo left Quincy about noon with 20 passengers. But the lobster boat broke down on the way and was towed to the island.

At the conclusion of the cookout, where the boaters reportedly had consumed some beer, the Crispo brothers tied the lobster boat to the starboard side of the Chris-Craft and headed back to Quincy around 8 p.m. (Because no tests were performed, the Coast Guard was unable to determine if alcohol was a factor in the accident, according to the report.) Nicole Crispo was oper-ating the Chris-Craft, with her husband on board. The other two men were aboard the lobster boat, the report says. Steven Crispo’s passengers weren’t on board for the return trip.

The Chris-Craft stalled when a mooring line fouled the propeller, and as the four attempted to free the prop, heavy rain with thunder and lightning began, as they’d heard predicted on the VHF. An attempt to start the lobster boat’s engine failed; the battery was drained, which meant the running lights weren’t lit. The lobster boat’s 40-pound Danforth anchor then was deployed. Nicole and Jeffrey Crispo took shelter on their boat, with its running lights lit, and Steven Crispo and Gagne did the same on the lobster boat.

The captain of the Nora Vittoria, identified by the Boston Globe newspaper as John Parker, had been aboard the ferry since 8:15 that morning, the Coast Guard report says. He and the crew had conducted two whale-watching trips, leaving their dock in Boston at 10:35 a.m. and 2:38 p.m. Then the crew ran a “Sunset Cruise,” departing at 7:05 p.m. It was 8:56 p.m. when, having discharged the dinner guests, the skipper pulled away from the dock one more time and headed for a berth in Hingham for the night.

When the rain began shortly after 9 o’clock, the master issued a securitee call to vessels in the area, “stating his position as heading southbound in Western Way heading to Hingham Harbor via Back River,” the Coast guard report says.

The ferry was making 25 to 30 knots, “covering a distance of approximately 36 to 44 feet per second with approximately 0 to 15 feet visibility when the master spotted the … Laina Lou” and the Chris-Craft, the report says. The Nora Vittoria’s stopping distance at that speed is about 170 feet, according to the report. At the last moment, the passengers on the Chris-Craft and lobster boat saw the Nora Vittoria make a sharp turn to their left. Then the port hull of the catamaran hit the stern of the Chris-Craft and ran directly over the lobster boat.

Despite the collision, the boaters received only minor or non-life-threatening wounds, the report says. Three were treated at hospitals but only one was admitted, according to news reports. No one on the Nora Vittoria was injured, and the crew helped rescue the boaters in the water, the report says.

In its critique of master’s conduct, the Coast Guard says he “failed to maintain a safe speed so as to take proper effective action to avoid collision and stop his vessel within a distance appropriate to the prevailing conditions.” The report also notes that the “master assumed that no vessels were present ahead of his vessel using scanty radar information,” and he failed to observe a rule requiring navigators to slow or stop their craft “to allow more time to assess the possible existence of a contact ahead of him.”

The report says that at the time of the collision the “master had been working approximately 13 hours, inclusive of a 1 hour and 22 minute break in the vessel’s under way operations. A reduction in physical and/or mental capability due to prolonged working hours may have reduced the master and crew’s decision-making abilities and reaction times.”

Despite the possibility of fatigue as an explanation of the accident, the report says a case can be made for suspending or revoking the master’s license for “negligence, misconduct and violation of law and regulations.” The report recommends a civil penalty for the operator of the Chris-Craft for “failure to maintain proper lookout.”

The “human element” is the “No. 1 risk” with high-speed ferries, according to Claude McKernan, who in 1997 formed New York City’s High Speed Commercial Craft Safety Board to control traffic in the busy waterways of the Big Apple. “The other category that we ranked as the second-highest was congestion — operating in congested areas. Most of the places where they operate are congested because of the need to provide alternative commuting sources.” In New York the waterway traffic includes tugs, ships, police boats, other ferries, recreational vessels and kayakers at night, he says.

McKernan, who when he formed the board was a Coast Guard warrant officer and the assistant branch chief for waterways oversight for the Port of New York, says that working with industry, his board established voluntary speed limits in congested areas. He says that between good training and the available navigational technology, high-speed craft can be operated safely. Radar that scans more frequently than normal radar can help identify objects even in fog, and technology known as “automatic identification systems” can let an operator “see around a corner” in a way that radar cannot, he says.

“Prudence dictates that if you are not comfortable operating at high speed that you would slow down. If technology can overcome that burden … then you can [go fast],” he says. “These boats that would operate at 40-plus knots would have night vision and infrared cameras. They could see a seagull sitting on a buoy in foggy conditions.”

McKernan, who left the Coast Guard in 1999 and now works in the ferry industry, insists that most operators are “very aware of the burden they have and the responsibility to not get into accidents, particularly at high speed. They are aware of reduced reaction times,” he says.

He says specialized management and training are involved in keeping a high-speed ferry safe, including a “team concept where everybody in the wheelhouse has responsibility and designated tasks they are to perform.” Good management of high-speed vessels also includes the hiring of “competent” individuals, says McKernan.

The physical standards for operators should be “similar to [those] in aviation. If a guy is coming down the East River at 50 knots and has a blackout, you have little time to respond. You have to be in good physical and mental shape,” McKernan says.

In the case of Boston Harbor Cruises, the Coast Guard report proposes several steps to improve the company’s safety attitude, including a Coast Guard review, with the company, of its high-speed vessel operations, the development by the company and the Coast Guard of “a new management team qualification syllabus,” and development of a “periodic refresher training program for qualified masters and crew of high-speed vessels.” The Coast Guard report also recommends a study of the company’s “work hour practices” to see if company policy might lead to increased fatigue.

John (Sandy) McDonald, secretary of the Long Island Sound task force, has mixed feelings about the ferries that several operators are proposing for the Sound. “I don’t really think they are going to be unsafe,” he says, though he talks about ferries that will “barrel down the Sound with hundreds of thousands of boats in the summer. I have a feeling that people try to keep to schedules … and it might become a problem.”

Craine, the task force chairman, says he was invited on a couple of demonstration rides. “With the work of the task force and the safety equipment on the high-speed ferries, I’m certainly not as concerned as I was initially,” he says. “I think the operators are sincere about their desire to avoid problems.”