Skip to main content

Heavier Americans, fewer passengers?

The Coast Guard is reviewing its per-person weight standards for passenger vessels

The Coast Guard is reviewing its per-person weight standards for passenger vessels

The Coast Guard is taking a look at whether it ought to update its weight profiles so they reflect the fact that — even in these calorie-conscious times — Americans are getting heavier.

The National Transportation Safety Board pointedly noted the outdated weight profiles in a safety recommendation stemming from its investigation of a 36-foot pontoon boat water taxi that capsized in a storm in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor last year with 23 passengers and two crewmembers aboard. Five died in the accident.

NTSB says the boat, Lady D, was carrying the number of people it was certified for, but they weighed 700 pounds more than the boat’s rated capacity. “Vessels operated in an overloaded condition are exposed to a higher capsize risk,” the report states.

NTSB says the boat was overloaded because adult Americans’ average weight has risen about 25 pounds since 1960, when the stability test rule for small commercial passenger vessels was written. NTSB has recommended that the Coast Guard increase the average per-person weight it uses to figure pontoon boat capacity and stability from 140 pounds — which anticipates a mix of men, women and children based on 1960 average weights — to 174 pounds — which anticipates a 50-50 mix of adult men and women only based on 2002 average weights.

Alternately, the NTSB says, the Coast Guard could require operators to weigh each passenger before boarding, or paint a line on the hull and use that to show the operator when the boat is loaded to capacity.

Coast Guard spokeswoman Jolie Shifflet says the Guard hasn’t decided what it will do yet, but it is reviewing the per-person weight standards it uses to determine the capacity of commercial passenger boats.

“That’s something we’re looking at, not just for pontoon vessels but for all [commercial] passenger vessels,” she says. “We have to look at the information out there about the size of the average American.”

The NTSB recommendation applies only to pontoon boats in service as commercial passenger vessels. There has been no consideration given to changing the way capacity is figured on any recreational boat, says John Adey, technical director for the American Boat and Yacht Council, which sets voluntary construction standards for the industry.

He says ABYC uses an average of 141 pounds per person — which is based on 1960 average weights and anticipates a mix of men, women and children — to determine the capacity of a pleasure boat. “The accident data doesn’t indicate a need to make any change,” says Adey. “The Coast Guard has done a risk-based assessment. They don’t see the risk, so why spend all that money to change it?”

Phil Cappel, chief of the Coast Guard’s Recreational Boating Product Assurance Division, agrees. He says the formulas for setting recreational boat capacities for level flotation start with 141 pounds per person and add weight at the end of the calculation, bringing the per-person weight up to 160 pounds. Flotation standards also build in a safety factor of five, he says. “If the manufacturer says it will carry 1,000 pounds, you can put 5,000 pounds on it and it will still float.” However, that doesn’t mean the boat necessarily will be stable.

Cappel says the recreational standards also assume the boat will be used by a family — a couple of adults and a couple of children. “I don’t see us changing any of that,” he says.