New report, new theory for keel failure

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Texas A&M says the keel fell off its racing boat Cynthia Woods because of design and construction flaws

A Texas A&M University report concludes that the keel failure of its 38-foot racing sailboat Cynthia Woods, which led to the death of a safety officer, was due to design and construction flaws with the boat.

Investigators concluded that stress at the keel-to-hull connection was exacerbated by backing plates that were too narrow according to the Texas A&M report.

“We concluded … the accident was the result of an inadequate design and construction of the vessel’s hull and the keel-to-hull connection,” stateås the 34-page report, released July 17. “The thickness of the hull’s fiberglass laminate was one-third of the minimum thickness specified in the ABS [American Bureau of Shipping] Guide.”

The findings of the university’s 12-month probe differ from the conclusions of a Coast Guard report issued last December, which places the blame for the Cape Fear 38’s June 2008 sinking on previous groundings and student repairs to the keel area. “Despite the vessel’s numerous groundings, all evidence examined in this case indicated that no major repairs or examinations were performed on the Cynthia Woods by any qualified third parties,” says the Coast Guard in its report.

The boat, a 2005 model built by Cape Fear Yacht Works of Wilmington, N.C., sank during the Regatta de Amigos race from Galveston, Texas, to Veracruz, Mexico, after its 5,000-pound keel fell off, causing the boat to flood and capsize within a minute. Safety officer Roger Stone, 53, perished after he managed to push two students out of the cabin to safety. The four students and another safety officer drifted in the Gulf of Mexico for 26 hours before being rescued.

Narrow backing plates

The university report, which relied heavily on findings of naval architect Brendan Dobroth of Dobroth Design Inc., states that the sailboat “failed five design requirements set forth in the American Bureau of Shipping Guide for Building and Classing Offshore Racing Yachts.” The report states that the keel failed because the “hull’s fiberglass laminate was too thin to support the weight of and forces upon the keel, thereby resulting in insufficient shear load capacity.”

Reacting to the university report, Cape Fear issued its own statement: “We are disappointed to hear Texas A&M University refuses to accept any responsibility for the events related to the June 2008 capsizing of the Cynthia Woods.”

The Coast Guard stands by its findings, says Lionel Bryant, chief warrant officer of Coast Guard Sector Houston-Galveston. “Our experts are going to go through the report,” says Bryant. “We fully expected that the university would undergo its own investigation. I’m sure our folks are willing to sit and talk and see why there are differing opinions.”

Cynthia Woods heads out of Galveston Bay on her way to the fateful Regatta de Amigos in June 2008.

The university would like to meet with the Coast Guard and discuss the differences in the two reports, says Andrew Strong, the general counsel for the Texas A&M system of universities. “My goal is that after [meeting] we can jointly issue a statement reconciling the two reports,” says Strong.

The Coast Guard hired Ancon Marine Consultants of St. James City, Fla., to conduct the Cynthia Woods investigation. The report also points out that the sailors had no access to either the EPIRB or the yacht’s life raft because both were stowed below.

A third investigation is being conducted by Randall Sorrels and Muhammad Aziz of Houston, attorneys for Linda Stone, Roger Stone’s widow. Linda Stone filed a wrongful death suit last July against Cape Fear Yacht Works and Bruce Marek, who designed the sailboat. Also named as a defendant was Payco Marine, a Galveston company that had done repair work on the boat. The university was not named.

Stone honored

On July 27, the Coast Guard posthumously awarded Roger Stone the Gold Lifesaving Medal, an honor given to members of the U.S. military or U.S. civilians who “endanger their own lives while saving or attempting to save another from drowning, a shipwreck or other perils of the water.”

After shoving the two students out of the sailboat’s companionway, Stone became trapped in the cabin and never escaped. An autopsy revealed he drowned.

“We have known all along Roger was a hero, and this prestigious recognition further validates his bravery and sacrifice,” his widow, Linda Stone, said in a statement.

This article originally appeared in the September 2009 issue.