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Flab factor won’t trim boat capacity limits

Recreational boats won’t be affected by a Coast Guard proposal to trim the number of passengers permitted aboard inspected passenger vessels. The measure, addressing the fact that Americans weigh a lot more today than they did when current standards were adopted, bases passenger capacities on an average adult weight of 185 pounds instead of 160 or 140 pounds.

A 2004 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report says both men and women gained on average more than 24 pounds between the 1960s and 2002. Average adult weight has risen from 160 pounds to 185. Teenagers, too, are chunkier. Boys 12 to 17 years old have put on 15 pounds, weighing in at 141; girls average 12 pounds heavier now at 130, according to the CDC.

Heavier customers became an issue for the inspected passenger vessel industry when 25 people died in 2004 and 2005 in two excursion-boat capsizes. Five died aboard the Lady D, a 36-foot pontoon water taxi, on Baltimore Harbor in March 2004 when it was hit by a sudden squall. Twenty more lost their lives aboard the Ethan Allen, a 40-foot monohull tour boat that capsized on New York’s Lake George in October 2005 when it encountered a large wake.

Overloading because of outdated passenger weight standards was a factor in both capsizes, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. The number of people permitted aboard the Lady D and Ethan Allen was based on a Coast Guard weight standard of 140 pounds per person for protected waters. The actual average weight of the passengers aboard the Lady D was 168 pounds; aboard the Ethan Allen it was 178 pounds.

If adopted, the rule would require operators to reduce passenger capacities by a fixed percentage, depending on whether their original capacity was based on an average 140 or 160 pounds per person. Or they can modify the vessel — maybe add foam to increase buoyancy — so they don’t have to scale back their numbers. Another option is to show they have enough margin of safety built into their carrying capacity so they don’t have to do either of those things.

The Aug. 20 proposed rulemaking would affect an estimated 6,073 passenger-carrying vessels, those regulated under Title 46 of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, subchapters H, K and T — typically sailing boats, gaming vessels, tour boats, ferries, water taxis, charter fishing boats, and a catch-all category of general use. A June Coast Guard report suggests most of the passenger reductions will be on excursion and gaming boats, and some ferry boats.

Americans’ expanding waistlines have brought no changes yet in the posted passenger capacities of recreational boats, says Jeff Hoedt, chief of the Coast Guard Boating Safety Division. The division took a look at passenger capacities for pleasure boats last year and found no need yet for updating average weights, because of the big safety margins already designed into their carrying capacities, Hoedt says.

The Coast Guard requires a capacity plate on all recreational monohulls smaller than 20 feet except kayaks, canoes, sailboats and inflatables. These plates show a boat’s weight- and passenger-carrying and horsepower capacities, and though federal law doesn’t require boaters to comply with posted capacities, some state laws do. Hoedt says Coast Guard tests show that mandated flotation in recreational boats smaller than 20 feet keep them afloat — at rest in calm water with proper weight distribution — even when they carry five times their rated weight capacity.

“We’ve always built in a very generous design factor,” says Cindy Squires, National Marine Manufacturers Association director of regulatory affairs. “We’re not getting any indication from the Coast Guard or anyone else that we may need to look at recreational boats.”

NMMA and its technical arm, the American Boat and Yacht Council, nonetheless will be monitoring the relationship between boat stability and big weight gains among boaters. Hoedt says capsize fatalities are not trending up. Most small-boat capsizes are due to boaters’ exceeding a vessel’s posted weight or passenger capacity, poor weight distribution, or taking an overloaded boat out in rough water, he says.

This article originally appeared in the October 2008 issue.


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