A photograph accompanying the June 3 Metro article “Chesapeake Bay boater rescues 23 on school trip” illustrated a disaster that was narrowly avoided. Twenty-three people, including 14 fourth- graders, were on a small passenger vessel that sank in the Chesapeake Bay and were forced to sit on the vessel’s canopy to stay out of the cold water before being rescued by a good Samaritan. The doughnut-shaped device shown floating near the vessel is what the Coast Guard calls a “survival craft.” These craft do not provide out-of-water protection for anyone. Imagine 23 people clinging to that device had the vessel sunk in deeper water.
This type of device was scheduled to be phased out and replaced before Feb. 26 with devices that would keep passengers out of the water. However, Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-Calif.), at the behest of the passenger-vessel industry, inserted a provision in the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2015, which became law Feb. 8, repealing this phase-out.
This type of accident has happened before. In December 1993, the small passenger vessel El Toro foundered on the Chesapeake Bay with 23 people on board. Three people died from hypothermia. The National Transportation Safety Board recommended that the Coast Guard “require that out-of-the-water survival craft for all passengers and crew be provided on board small passenger vessels on all routes.” It has been 104 years since the sinking of the Titanic, and we still don’t have survival craft on all passenger vessels to keep people out of the water in a maritime disaster.
I worked on U.S. maritime policy for the House of Representatives for more than 33 years. This is the first time that I recall Congress stepping in to lower safety standards. I certainly won’t be taking my fourth-grade son on a vessel that doesn’t have survival craft with out-of-water protection.
John M. Cullather, Falls Church
The writer is a former staff director for the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation.