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Fatal collision: ‘the most horrific sound’

A man drives his Sea Ray over a sailboat while entering a GPS waypoint, according to the Coast Guard

A man drives his Sea Ray over a sailboat while entering a GPS waypoint, according to the Coast Guard

The skipper of a 63-foot sport cruiser faces homicide charges for his role in a daytime collision that killed the owner of a 35-foot sailboat on Buzzards Bay, Mass., according to authorities.

Fred M. Bevins, 60, of Gloucester, Mass., apparently was punching in a GPS waypoint seconds before the early-afternoon collision July 18, according to the Coast Guard. David “D.J.” Walsh, 64, the owner and skipper of the sailboat, died in the collision.

“When the boat hit us, it was the most horrific sound I ever heard — the sound of breaking fiberglass and the cabin getting crushed,” says Warren G. Hathaway, 66, who was in the cabin of the Freedom 35 when the Sea Ray 630 struck the sailboat about 4-1/2 miles south of South Dartmouth, Mass. Hathaway suffered minor injuries (cuts and bruises to his chest, arms and legs).

Bevins was to be charged with one count of homicide by vessel, according to Gregg Miliote, director of communications for the Bristol County District Attorney’s Office. Bevins faces no less than 30 days but no more than 2-1/2 years in prison, a fine of up to $3,000 and mandatory loss of his driver’s license for 10 years, says Miliote.

Walsh, the retired president of a specialty metals company, was an experienced sailor and a member of the New Bedford (Mass.) Yacht Club board of directors. He was at the wheel of his 1994 sloop-rigged sailboat, Priority, on a broad reach across Buzzards Bay that would have returned him and Hathaway to PadanaramHarbor in South Dartmouth. Visibility was seven to eight miles, with an 8-mph southwest wind, according to the Coast Guard crew that responded to the accident. The crash took place at about 1:40 p.m., says Miliote.

In his written statement to the Coast Guard, taken at the scene, Bevins, the owner of the 1993 Sea Ray, states: “I was setting waypoint on GPS. Looked up to see sailboat in front of me. No time to avoid crash.”

Also aboard the powerboat were the skipper’s wife, Ellen, 60, and the Bevinses’ 11-year-old grandson. Ellen Bevins was laying on a stern sunpad when the crash occurred, according to her statement to the Coast Guard.

Soundings obtained a copy of the Coast Guard statement that describes its boarding of the Sea Ray. Boarding officer Brian Smith found Bevins in violation of two federal regulations: negligent operation, which carries up to a $5,000 fine, and gross negligent operation, a Class C misdemeanor. Bevins also was found in violation by the boarding officer of seven federal navigation rules, including failure to post a lookout; failure to operate at a safe speed; failure to take action to avoid the risk of collision; and not following Rule 18, “Responsibilities Between Vessels,” which states that a power-driven vessel under way shall keep out of the way of a sailing vessel, according to the Coast Guard.

The speed and course of the Sea Ray were unknown at press time, but investigators were examining information stored in its GPS, according to Charles A. Murray, the attorney representing the Walsh family.

Under full sail with its Yanmar diesel shut down, Priority was making about 3 knots at the time of the accident, says Hathaway.

The Walsh family is filing a wrongful death lawsuit against Bevins, according to Murray. “It was a reckless act,” he says. “The powerboat hit the sailboat broadside at the starboard rail and went through the cockpit.” Walsh died of blunt force trauma, says Murray, who obtained a copy of the death certificate.

Bevins, who spoke to Soundings in a telephone interview, says it was a tragic accident. “I’d like to give you the whole story, but my lawyer has advised me against it. I’ve been beat up pretty bad [in the press] on this,” says Bevins, who broadcast a mayday from the Sea Ray, Reasons, after the crash. “It was an accident. I have nothing to hide, but I can’t talk about it right now.” Bevins declined to identify his attorney.

Bevins says he “demanded” the Coast Guard conduct Breathalyzer tests on him and his wife to show that neither had been drinking. Both had a 0 percent blood-alcohol content, according to the Coast Guard statement.

The sailors also had consumed no alcohol that day, says Hathaway. “The State Police went through the boat with a fine-tooth comb and found no alcohol,” he says. “The only beverage we had was sparkling water.” Hathaway says he wasn’t asked to take a Breathalyzer test.

‘He’s not here anymore’

Walsh and Hathaway had spent hundreds of hours on the water together over the years, most of them coaching the DartmouthHigh School sailing team. Hathaway is the head coach, and Walsh was assistant coach.

The pair got under way at about 10:15 on the morning of the accident. Hathaway sailed southeast across Buzzards Bay toward NaushonIsland — the largest of the ElizabethIslands — and then southwest. Walsh took the wheel off CuttyhunkIsland — the westernmost island — for the last leg of the trip, steering a northerly course toward home. It was about 1:15 p.m.

“It was a beautiful day, just spectacular,” says Hathaway, a retired newspaper publisher and also a member of the yacht club’s board of directors.

Hathaway went below to poke around and check out the teak-and-holly sole, which Walsh refinished last winter. It was warm in the cabin, and Hathaway was a bit tired, so he lay on the starboard settee and dozed off for five minutes or so. He says he awoke to the sound and vibration of a big powerboat. “I knew the boat was close, and I knew it was big and coming fast,” says Hathaway, who got to his feet and stepped toward the companionway. “I heard D.J. yelling with urgency in his voice: ‘What are you doing? What are you doing?’ Then he said, ‘No, no, no.’ And that was it.”

The 27-ton powerboat smashed into the starboard side of the cockpit, throwing Hathaway into the side of the cabin. He struggled to his feet. The boat was taking on water, and he was standing knee-deep. The crushed cabin top blocked the companionway, so Hathaway clawed at the starboard side of the cabin. “All I could think about was D.J.,” says Hathaway. He made a hole big enough to squeeze his 260-pound body through. In the process of climbing through, Hathaway’s arms and hands were cut by fiberglass shards.

His friend was gone, the cockpit destroyed. “I remember the horrible contrast of the loud crash and then the quiet when I got out of the cabin, with the sail gently flapping,” says Hathaway. The Sea Ray’s mayday coming over the sailboat’s VHF broke the silence.

The sport cruiser, about 100 yards away, approached. Bevins motored toward the Freedom’s stern. From about 200 feet away, he asked Hathaway if he was all right. “I said I didn’t know,” says Hathaway. Then Bevins asked if there was anyone else on board. Hathaway responded, “Yes, but he’s not here anymore.”

Nothing more was said between the two. Ellen Bevins tossed Hathaway a life jacket. The Coast Guard was on scene about 20 minutes later.

Bevins, the owner of a family-run auto repair shop in Gloucester, Mass., received his Coast Guard documentation for Reasons in November 2007, according to the Coast Guard database. Sea Ray 630s built in the early 1990s were powered by twin diesels from about 1,100 hp to 1,400 hp each. The 63-footer weighs 54,500 pounds and has a beam of 15 feet, 9 inches.

Mr. Fix-It

Walsh bought his Freedom 35 in 1999. The two-stateroom boat has a self-tending jib and unstayed carbon-fiber mast, and it can be sailed short-handed, which Walsh often did with his wife.

“The boat was named Priority because boating was a priority for D.J.,” says Bill Dingwell, a close friend and the commodore of the New Bedford Yacht Club. “He was an experienced sailor with extensive racing experience.” Walsh competed in many regional sailing events, including the Buzzards Bay Regatta. He also was a two-time chairman of the regatta, which draws upward of 400 boats, says Dingwell.

Each summer, members of the yacht club partake in a group cruise, sailing to Maine, Boston or Cape Cod. Walsh led the fleet on a Down East cruise in 2003, says Dingwell. But Walsh’s sailing activities went beyond racing and cruising. He played an important role in the development of young sailors, both at the yacht club and at local high schools. Walsh became the DartmouthHigh School assistant coach in 2004, teaming with Hathaway. The students raced the yacht club’s fleet of Vanguard 420s.

Joey Mello, now sailing coach at the University of Rhode Island, helped form the team in 1999 as a junior. He says Walsh and Hathaway were the perfect fit. “D.J. was the organizer, Mr. Fix-It and the owner of the very popular Molly [his dog], while coach Hathaway was the coach, strategist and emotional leader of the team,” says Mello, 26.

Rather than a funeral, which Walsh didn’t want, friends and family gathered July 22 at the yacht club to celebrate his life. The sailing team restored a wooden dinghy and filled it with flowers as a memorial to their coach. Following the party, the team placed the boat on Walsh’s mooring in PadanaramHarbor, where it remained.

Hathaway says he remembers his friend each time he looks out his back window and sees the Optimist dinghy, Richara, at the end of his dock. Walsh came up with the name, piecing together the first names of the friends’ three grandchildren: Hathaway’s granddaughter, Riley, and Walsh’s two granddaughters, Charlotte and Rachel.

The little sailboat is “kind of a symbol of how much we loved each other,” says Hathaway.