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Tour boat skipper guilty of ‘negligence’

The Coast Guard has suspended his license for running over a Laser sailor at a regatta

The Coast Guard has suspended his license for running over a Laser sailor at a regatta

The captain of a Charleston, S.C., tour boat that ran over a small sailboat during a July regatta was found guilty of “negligence and misconduct,” according to the Coast Guard, which has suspended his license for three months. O.C. Polk, a former commercial fisherman, must also complete a Coast Guard-approved vessel piloting and navigation course to avoid a longer license suspension, the agency says.

In its preliminary investigation the Coast Guard found that Joel Lambinus, 57, whose Laser was struck by the 102-foot Spirit of Charleston, failed to keep a proper watch. However, Lambinus, who received only minor injuries in the incident, wasn’t charged by the Coast Guard.

“The nautical Rules of the Road require all vessels to maintain a proper lookout, proceed at a safe speed consistent with traffic conditions, and take necessary action to avoid collision,” says Cmdr. John Mauger, chief of prevention at Coast Guard Sector Charleston, in a press release. “This collision occurred due to failure to follow these important rules by both parties.”

According to the Coast Guard findings, Lambinus, sailing in a regatta hosted by the Charleston Yacht Club, and several other sailors “crossed safely in front of the tour boat without incident. The collision occurred when Lambinus altered course back into the tour boat’s direct path only 50 to 75 yards ahead of the vessel. It was apparent that Lambinus was not aware of the vessel’s location when he altered course back into its path. Polk did not sound any sound-signals prior to the collision, but witnesses reported that the tour boat’s engines were stopped seconds prior to the collision.”

“I’m not real happy about the way they [the Coast Guard] made some of the statements,” says Lambinus, “but the fact of the matter is I should be aware of my surroundings at all times. But in a case where you’re in the middle of a race course, you’re hardly expecting a [102-foot] boat to come cruising by.”

Lambinus says he had been luffing his sail and drifting, attempting to bail his cockpit, which had filled in the choppy conditions. He had tacked, he says, but his boat wasn’t moving forward when he first saw the Spirit of Charleston. When he trimmed his sail in an attempt to get away, he says, the Laser initially began sailing toward the tour boat. As the gap closed, he says, he jumped overboard and swam down, the tour boat passing above him as he bumped along the bottom of the hull.

Polk, who immediately after the July 22 accident was put on a leave of absence by his employer, Fort Sumter Cruises/Spiritline Cruises, and then was returned to duty, was unavailable for comment. Chip Campsen, a partner in the company, wouldn’t discuss Polk’s status in the company due to privacy concerns. Campsen says Polk was one of “about eight” captains employed by the company.

Polk’s punishment was part of a settlement between the Coast Guard, the tour boat operator and the recreational boaters in Charleston that was approved by an administrative law judge. The agreement requires the Coast Guard to notify commercial shipping interests when one of the local yacht clubs is holding a regatta in CharlestonHarbor. The clubs have agreed to monitor VHF channel 16 as well as channel 13, the commercial traffic channel. The Fort Sumter Cruises agreed to “avoid regattas altogether by using alternate routes whenever practicable,” the Coast Guard says.

The July regatta wasn’t the first to result in disputes between the tour company and local yacht clubs, according to Campsen. “We’ve complained to them. They’ve complained to us or communicated,” he says. “There’s been communications about that several times. Sailboats sail right up to a [tour] boat and come about.” Campsen says that over time, these cases have resulted in “different resolutions,” including one in which regatta officials agreed to usher racers across disputed waters like a school crossing guard.

Campsen says that in the July incident, Polk knew a regatta was under way and was following a normal path to reach FortSumter. Informed of Lambinus’ description of events suggesting he wasn’t moving after he had tacked, Campsen responded that both the Coast Guard and his captain say Lambinus sailed in front of the tour boat after tacking.

The Charleston Yacht Club official whose name was on the permit for the regatta has another view. “I heard the story 18 different ways,” says Ryan Hamm, “and didn’t hear it that way until the [Coast Guard press release].”

Hamm says that “in hindsight,” it may be wise for race officials to monitor channel 13, as the Coast Guard recommended. In its press release, the agency noted that “investigators also identified a need for the race officials to establish and maintain better communications with commercial traffic during regattas.”

“To me,” says Hamm, “it sounded like they [the Coast Guard] had to find a little blame with everybody.” But he says he is satisfied with the result of the investigation. “There’s going to be more safeguards put in place so that this doesn’t happen, and I don’t think another one of their captains” will steer into a regatta, Hamm says. “In the future, [a regatta application] will trigger a Notice to Mariners of different events being held on the water.”

“The Coast Guard report, I think, was probably the best they could come up with,” says Lambinus. “I don’t fault them.” He says he hopes that the discussions between boaters, the Coast Guard and the tour line create remedies “etched in stone so that this problem does not happen again, perhaps with a 10-year-old kid.”