Marine Units on both the local and county levels have been stepping up their training and equipment for accidents anticipated with reconstruction of the Tappan Zee Bridge.
However, Friday night’s fatal crash not far from Piermont between a pleasure boat and a construction barge might not be quite what they expected.
Greg Porteus, Captain of Launch 5, which operates out of Ossining and has most recently policed the waters for such events as the 8 Bridges swim and 100-Mile Paddle, says this tragedy took him by surprise.
“I’m out there a lot, and I didn’t think of this happening with the bridge construction,” Porteus said. “There’s seven boating seasons to come with this, and much more equipment out there, more obstacles. They might have to do something different out there. I bet they are talking about that today.”
In fact, the Tappan Zee Constructors had more lighting around their fixed barges as of Saturday, though experts have noted they were already perfectly abiding the Coast Guard regulations for lighting.
These lighting systems can be very confusing to marine professionals, let alone a casual boater, said Porteus.
“We really need to simplify these things,” he said. “It’s very confusing to people. You can’t expect all these pleasure boaters to be up to snuff.”
Most boats of a certain size come with radar overlaid with charts these days, but that doesn’t mean boaters know how or even bother to use them. He says it doesn’t take a scientist to learn to read the machines. The best idea is to keep radar on by day so you get used to seeing things on your radar by night.
He took me out from Tarrytown Marina to the fateful barge on Launch 5 Monday to demonstrate just how to do that.
Watch the attached video to see footage from our trip.
At the steering wheel of Launch 5, Porteus made a point of saying he was going about 10 knots. Slowly and carefully we approached the barge that a half-dozen passengers of a pleasure boat hit Friday night, with two dying soon after in the water.
“Forget about the tragedy,” Porteus said, “it’s time now for the media to help save more lives.”
While no bridge construction barges will ever be parked in the Channel, Porteus
said, their presence is accumulating, they don’t appear on charts, and they are
hard to detect at night.
He emphasized it's not the Tappan Zee Constructors fault however that allegedly “intoxicated people slammed into that barge.”
Porteus hopes this weekend’s tragedy proves a “quick shot in the arm for more education.”
He’s amazed, he said, by all the boats at night speeding up and down the river. A longtime veteran of the waters, he won’t even his take his boat out at night unless absolutely necessary, and when he does, he navigates very slowly.
“I sit at the shoreline and watch some of these boats go by at 40 miles an hour and say ‘wow, what are they thinking,’” Porteus said. “You just hit a tree and you can die.”
In the center channel, there’s a lot of traffic, but then to the sides of the river, there’s all the anchored obstacles. Pros and cons to either route, more cons if you're racing across both.
“If you’re not paying attention, you’d miss the warning light for the barge – and it’s easy to miss – you’ve got to be constantly looking,” he said. On his boat with him if and when he does go out at night is a person dedicated to just reading the radar and charts.
Porteus mentioned how someone on his Facebook page had commented that anyone intoxicated on the boat should also be held responsible and not just the driver, as you need a sober crew to be safe at night.
“You see the paint from their boat on the barge. They hit it dead-on. The impact was severe,” Porteus said. Passengers having the misfortune of being ejected into the water “have a very slim chance of survival,” he said. The medical examiner on Monday announced the cause of death in both cases as drowning.
Assemblywoman Sandy Galef and Senator David Carlucci have been pressing for boating licensing law reform with this petition to require “mechanically-propelled boat operators to possess boating safety certificates to protect the boating public and prevent future injuries and fatalities.” They’ve pushed for a package of bills since July 2012, but will certainly increase their efforts now.
Calucci issued a statement of “thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families,” followed by this call to action:
"While there is nothing we can do to change the course of events that transpired over this past weekend, we have an obligation to do everything in our power to try to prevent similar tragedies from occurring. It is clear that more education and public awareness is sorely needed. Mandatory boat safety education will go along way toward informing boat operators and their passengers about the importance of safe operating procedures on New York's waterways.
"New York must get serious about making sure that boaters understand the proper rules, regulations, and procedures of operating these powerful machines. This includes strengthening our BWI laws and enforcing stronger punishments for those who consume alcohol and operate a vessel. Commuter safety does not end on paved roadways. I strongly urge the Governor to sign the comprehensive boating safety legislation into law to make sure that all New Yorkers can be protected on our waters."
As it stands now, you buy a boat this afternoon and “you can be out there tonight,” Porteus said.
This weekend at Ossining’s Westerly Marina, the United States Coast Guard auxiliary was teaching a boating safety course, as they have done here since the 1950s.
One among them was wearing a t-shirt saying “The sea yields to knowledge.”
“Training is key for anything you do,” Porteus said.
Flotilla 67, First Southern District, United States Coast Guard Auxiliary meets on the third Wednesday of each month at the Ossining Boat and Canoe Club starting at 7 p.m. Members of Flotilla 67 regularly conduct boating safety classes for the public, free vessel safety examinations of recreational vessels, and more.