Five passengers were killed, and a 10-year-old girl was permanently brain-damaged, in the sinking of the Lady D Water Taxi on March 6, 2004. The accident took place in Baltimore Harbor, on its run between Fort McHenry and Fells Point. The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the pontoon boat was carrying too much weight when it capsized during a storm, while carrying 25 passengers and crew.
The Coast Guard is being faulted for using outdated weighting guidelines to certify the water taxi for 25 passengers. The Coast Guard guidelines use 140 lbs as an average passenger weight, which is a figure they came up with back in 1942. This figure would allow the taxi to carry 3,500 pounds. The average passenger weight on the fated run was determined to be 168 pounds, for a total of 4,210 pounds. With pounding wind and waves, this proved to be too much for the Lady D.
A Coast Guard stability test was never officially done on the Lady D. In the early 1990s another pontoon boat, the Fells Point Princess, was stability tested. The Fells Point Princess was mistakenly rated using guidelines for a monohull boat, which it was not. This resulted in inaccurate figures for capacity ratings for that vessel. The Coast Guard labeled the Lady D. as a “sister vessel” to the Fells Point Princess, thereby waiving testing requirements, and using the inaccurate figures.
Weather was also a contributing problem, and the National Weather Service was criticized for not giving a timely warning of the thunderstorms that were approaching the harbor on March 6th, 2004. The warning was finally released about 7 minutes after the Lady D capsized. The weather service has since taken steps to correct their shortcomings.
The Coast Guard is taking heat for not taking any immediate action to correct their outdated weighting guidelines, nor can they say when this might happen. Some feel it will take another accident before the urgency is felt. The Coast Guard has been working on changing pontoon boat capacities on a case-by-case basis, and has tightened standards for determining when vessels are similar.
Sources: US Coast Guard & Baltimore Sun