The National Transportation Safety Board says the capsize of an 85-foot Northern Marine yacht during its launch last year was probably a result of the vessel’s low margin of stability. The board attributed the stability problem of the $10 million yacht, which was a complete loss, to the combined effects of a recording error during the final vessel weigh, which resulted in an incorrect assessment of its center of gravity, as well as an overestimation of the weight of installed ballast.
It took the agency a year to complete its investigation. In May 2014 Baaden sank upon launch in Anacortes, Wash., exacerbating a spate of bad luck for Northern Marine CEO and general manager Andy McDonald, who had just returned to work after an extended illness. The ill-fated launch generated a video that went viral, and the company three months later closed up shop.
The NTSB report partly confirms what an independent architect found after the boat was subjected to a stability review — it was not properly ballasted, McDonald told Soundings Trade Only at the time. “It was a launching accident,” he says. “The accident occurred while the boat was still mostly out of the water, so it had no flotation when it started to tip over.”
McDonald, owner and general manager of New World Yacht Builders, was building boats under the name Northern Marine. Due to a sudden medical emergency in January 2014 there was “discontinuity” during construction of the yacht, the report said. McDonald referenced his unexpected medical malady and subsequent three-month recovery in an interview after the launching accident, saying it had happened shortly after he was finally able to return to work.
“One thing I feel pretty strongly about is the term capsize,” McDonald said after the accident. “The boat did not capsize. It was not floating. It tipped over. It was involved in an accident.” However, the NTSB report refers to the accident as a capsize.
The yacht was salvaged but was declared a total constructive loss, estimated at $10 million. McDonald told Trade Only in 2014 that Northern Marine’s insurance company was on the hook for the loss. At the time of the accident, New World employed 52 people, primarily at its Anacortes yard. The builder entered receivership and ceased operations in August 2014, according to the report.
Northern Marine was an established builder of resin-infused composite motoryachts from 57 to 152 feet, building more than 25 hulls since its inception in 1995. McDonald had worked under the tutelage of company founder Richard “Bud” LeMieux until LeMieux was forced out after selling a controlling interest to an investor group. The company went bankrupt in 2010. LeMieux and McDonald together bought the company out of bankruptcy.
At the 2011 Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, McDonald told Trade Only that he was excited about new projects — among them an 85-foot expedition-style tri-deck cruiser, presumably the one in the accident last year. In 2012 McDonald bought the company, although LeMieux stayed on for a period of time as a consultant. After the sinking, LeMieux sent a letter to media outlets in an effort to distance himself from McDonald and the company.
NTSB interviews indicated that New World used three project managers during the Baaden construction. “Not all of the project managers had an engineering background, as their job was to communicate and implement the buyer’s requests, as well as interface with the production manager and maintain project finances and scheduling,” the report said.
“The overall design engineering and naval architecture was primarily overseen by New World’s owner/general manager,” the report said. “Initially, a New World engineer and a designer, each with several years of experience, worked directly with New World’s owner. The engineer departed early in the project, and thereafter the designer served as the primary contact for the offsite stability naval architect.”
The buyer’s onsite “build captain” participated actively in styling and interior layouts of the Baaden design and requested the first weight estimate of the vessel during construction. In late 2013 the build captain’s position was terminated and a “less active yacht management group” took over his role, the report says.
In January 2014, after McDonald’s sudden illness, a consulting naval architect became acting general manager of New World in the owner’s absence. Although the acting official had worked for several years for Northern Marine in the past and was working on site for New World in various capacities, he had not previously been specifically involved with Baaden.
In April 2014 the designer who worked on the weight estimates and provided information to the stability naval architect left New World. McDonald returned to the Baaden project in May 2014, just prior to the launch.
“New World personnel interviews indicated that the responsibility for overall vessel engineering was unclear in the final months of the project,” the NTSB found. “The company’s acting general manager stated that the Baaden project had more discontinuity in technical personnel and a greater amount of subcontracted work, compared to past builds.”
Engineers, managers and other personnel involved with the design and construction of Baaden were experienced and had successfully built and launched similar vessels in the same manner in the past. “However, New World’s transcription error from the reading on a load cell and incorrectly reported ballast weight resulted in the contracted offsite naval architect inaccurately assessing launch stability,” the report found. “These errors indicate a breakdown in the technical oversight of the design and build process.”
Investigators requested a post-accident weigh of the vessel to verify its launch weight for stability and center of gravity analysis, but with New World in receivership the yacht was unavailable for weighing.
McDonald, who was serving as launch captain, received some of the only injuries when he cut his hand clearing portlight glass to help other launch-crew members escape the head, where water was beginning to rise. Four crewmembers were removed, but a fifth could not fit through the portlight, according to the report. Local emergency responders used a fire ax to further clear the portlight, enabling him to be pulled free. Paramedics on the scene directed McDonald to a hospital. Two of the other trapped people were treated locally for minor cuts and injuries while being extricated through the portlight hole. McDonald mentioned in an interview after the capsize that it had been somewhat of a traumatic experience for some of the launch crew.
The launch ramp, method and equipment were consistent with several other similarly sized launches Northern Marine had performed. However, when the transom became immersed and the swim steps were beginning to get wet, launch team members said they heard a sudden loud clank and crunching sound from the stern area, the report said. Then the boat shifted on the front cradle and lurched to port, where it remained heeled at about 12 degrees, according to an NTSB video study. After this movement Baaden had slightly less trim by the stern.
The team suspended the launch to assess the condition of the vessel and launch mechanisms. No leaks were found, and the launch mechanisms were normal. The team decided to continue the launch, in part because they could not pull the yacht back out of the water and they feared it would roll when the tide went out.
The safety coordinator said the team felt comfortable continuing and did so about 12 minutes later. The launch team believed the boat would right itself once it floated free from its cradles. As the launch continued, McDonald told the NTSB he increased reverse throttle to get the vessel off the cradles quickly, and Baaden began accelerating aft and continued to slowly roll.
The buyer’s representative heard unsecured items moving inside the boat — lazarette ballast, appliances and equipment — and a few seconds later the roll rate increased and the boat capsized, drifted into the marina and began filling with water through its engine air intakes.
McDonald could not be reached via email or phone for this article.
This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue.