Monday, July 23, 2018

How safe are Baltimore's Harbor vessels?

The horrible drowning of 17 Duck Boat passengers in Missouri brings to mind a time when those Duck Boats plied the Inner Harbor and Baltimore's Streets, the riders happily blowing their duck whistles while listening to the tour guide explaining the city's attractions. Duck, which operated here for seven years with up to eight boats, left Baltimore in 2009, in spite of the ideal water/city combination. In that they were like the other national or international tour chains, such a Big Bus which found our tourism not lucrative enough.
Baltimore Duck Boat before 2009 in the Harbor

Baltimore Duck Boat on Pratt Street
So  Baltimore is left with water taxis and a few local fairly large and sturdy vessels, not much to worry about one would think.

But the capsized Duck in the stormy lake in Missouri also brings to mind a deadly water taxi accident in the winter of 2004  which occurred under very similar conditions. Five passengers died in the Harbor near Fort McHenry.  It was a Seaport pontoon boat which had capsized in a sudden storm when a wind gust took hold of its large canvas side and made it roll over and float upside down with its passengers trapped underneath. Then just like in the Duck boat incident now, passengers did not wear life vests and were held down by the canvas enclosure. Still, 20 passengers were rescued. Could anything like that happen again in Baltimore?
We will never forget the lessons learned from the “Lady D” accident. (Michael McDaniel, President & CEO, Baltimore Water Taxi in a statement for this article).
All of Baltimore's remaining vessels are very different from the amphibious WWII type Duck vehicles, which operate in the not so well regulated space between land based buses and water based vessels. The amphibious vehicles were originally designed for military use in landing operations on beaches. Safety experts have said for some time that those crossover vehicles are neither properly designed for land nor for water safe and, therefore, not safe in either. They are high up on the road, lack bumpers and impact zones and they are too narrow and shallow in water to be stable. By contrast, the Coast Guard had approved the ill fated  water taxi for the route that it took back then because, as the NTSB report would declare in 2006, it had erroneously granted sister status based on a boat of a different size.
Baltimore Seaport water taxi pontoon boat prior to 2004

Baltimore's Harbor passenger vessels are regulated by the Coast Guard which issues various certificates based on categories of seaworthiness and risk. Operators need to hold Merchant Mariner Credentials. Water taxis fall into the category Small Passenger Vessels with more than 6 passengers under 100 gross tons. Public passenger boats also have to comply with accessibility requirements as defined by the US Access Board.
The area of operation for each vessel and any necessary operational limits are determined by the cognizant OCMI, and recorded on the vessel's Certificate of Inspection. Each area of operation, referred to as a route, is described on the Certificate of Inspection under the major headings “Oceans,” “Coastwise,” “Limited Coastwise,” “Great Lakes,” “Lakes, Bays, and Sounds,” or “Rivers,” as applicable. Further limitations imposed or extensions granted are described by reference to bodies of waters, geographical points, distance from geographical points, distances from land, depths of channel, seasonal limitations, and similar factors. (46 CFR part 176)
The pontoon boat that sank in front of Fort McHenry was at the edge of the area it was allowed to ply, i.e. up to Fort Mc Henry from where on the water opens up and a different set of rules applies regarding speed and seaworthiness. Seaport, then operated by the Living Classrooms Foundation as a competitor to Ed Kane's Water Taxi operation, ceased to operate water taxis after the accident. Kane's water taxi remained in operation but has since been partnered with Plank Industries. Kevin Plank's involvement led to the development of a customized boat manufactured in Baltimore's Brooklyn based Maritime Applied Physics Corporation, MAPC.

Today, most of the water taxi service is provided by five new 55' vessels, the Key’s Anthem, Cal’s Streak, Thurgood’s Justice, Billie’s Voice and Edgar’s Muse, a fleet that is still growing. The boats are ADA-compliant and bike-friendly, with WiFi, USB charging stations, heating, and drop-down windows. The boat is modeled as a modernized version of the classic Chesapeake Bay deadrise workboat and is licensed to carry 49 passengers and 2 crew members. Two pontoon boats remain in service. They are owned by Baltimore City and used to provide the free Harbor Connector service during morning and evening rush hour with the short jumps across the Harbor.
MAPC water taxi currently in service. Old pontoon boat in background

Baltimore Water Taxi also still holds on to the seven older catamarans, four of which are certified to operate past Fort McHenry. 

The new MAPC vessels with their high bow are more stable and powerful than the pontoon boats and catamarans  and are allowed to operate beyond Fort McHenry as it is necessary to service Port Covington. Baltimore Water Taxi has strengthened its rules when to stop service based on severe weather warnings. Service is stopped for all boats based on the needs of the least stable boats, the pontoons. The standards could potentially change after the entire fleet has been converted to the new boats in 2019, according to McDaniel.
The Baltimore Water Taxi continually monitors weather conditions that could adversely impact operations and follows the Small Passenger Vessel Safe Operating Conditions recommendations of the USCG.  If a hazardous weather condition is forecasted and/or detected within three nautical miles of our operating area, we immediately halt the service until those conditions improve and/or the situation is deemed safe.  The Baltimore Water Taxi uses a network of public and private weather monitoring stations to assist with this task (i.e., AccuWeather, The Weather Channel, Weather Underground, MyRadar, RadarUS+, WeatherBug, etc.).
We prioritize safety. (Michael McDaniel)
The Duck boats in Missouri had been on the lake well after such warnings had been issued. Once caught in high winds and waves, they did not have the power to steer into the wind and make headway against the waves making them essentially helplessly floating objects, even though one of the two boats managed to cut through anyway.

New Baltimore water taxi. Seaworthy through Low center of gravity, high bow
The Baltimore water taxi and Connector fleet is well underway towards becoming a viable water transportation mode that can serve tourists, commuters and those who just want to get quickly to the other side of the harbor year round. The services have not yet unfolded their full potential.  Water transit is only useful if its is reliable and not just a fair weather operation.

Baltimore Water Taxi operates under a Baltimore City license which includes the free and the paid service. The contract has just recently been renewed. (see here). Some questions about better landing facilities, more interconnected dependable service, additional direct routes which could relieve the congested Boston Street/Fleet Street corridor with a higher commuter  volume remain to be worked out.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Related articles on my  blogs:

Water Taxi - Urban Transportation between Uber and the Bus

How to achieve real Baltimore "Passenger Ferry Services"

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