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Pushing Safety To The Limit

If I drop a steel nail weighing less than an ounce off a dock at Port Everglades, Fla., the nail will sink directly to the bottom. But the cruise ship Allure of the Seas, which weighs about 100,000 metric tons when fully stocked, will continue to float serenely at its nearby berth.

Any trained scuba diver can tell you why. An object will float if the water it displaces weighs more than the object itself. If the object fails to displace enough water, it will sink. Divers carry weights to help them get below the surface. When they want to rise again, they can either jettison some weight - though that is an emergency maneuver, since you want to keep all your gear with you - or inflate their dive vests, which causes them to displace more water and creates buoyancy.

The nail, being thin and filled entirely with dense steel, displaces too little water to match its own weight. The cruise ship encloses vast spaces which, if filled, would contain more than 100,000 tons of seawater. So it floats.

Everything has limits. If you could cram every nook and cranny of the Allure with steel, the accumulated weight would put the cruise ship on the bottom. The highly trained crew that operates the cruise ship knows this, and understands exactly how much weight the vessel can safely carry.

But some recreational boaters don’t, and that’s a big problem.

Three children drowned on July 4 when they were trapped in a boat that capsized in Long Island Sound. Sen. Charles Schumer, who appeared at the subsequent news conference last Sunday along with the parents of one of the children, called for increased Coast Guard regulation as a result of the accident.

Schumer demanded that maximum capacity limits be posted for recreational vessels over 20 feet long. “We have capacity limits posted for everything from classrooms to ballrooms, but not recreational fishing vessels over 20 feet, and that just makes no sense,” he said. The New York Times reported that he said the lack of more comprehensive rules “boggles the mind.”

Currently, under a 1971 federal law, most engine-powered boats under 20 feet long must display their maximum capacity or weight load on a plate. Boats over 20 feet are not currently required to do the same.

When I previously wrote about Schumer, I was inclined to agree with the comment - supposedly made by former Sen. Bob Dole - that the most dangerous place in Washington is between Schumer and a television camera. But in this case, his outspokenness is warranted. It truly does boggle the mind that my inflatable kayak says clearly how many people it can carry (three), while a 30-foot pleasure craft had no such instruction.

It is still unclear what caused the July 4 accident. However, investigators said that the boat was designed to carry around 15 people. Nearly twice that many were aboard when it capsized.

Though a revision to the current law, or a new law, requiring larger boats to post capacity limits could take a great deal of time for approval and implementation, the Coast Guard may already have the authority to require such postings without legislation.

This is not the first time that Schumer has prodded the Coast Guard to take steps to make boaters safer. The Poughkeepsie Journal reported that, in response to boaters’ complaints about frequent police stops for random safety checks, Schumer championed the concept of an annual safety inspection sticker for boats similar to those used for motor vehicles. The idea was both to prevent inconvenience to boat owners who might face multiple stops and to promote a higher general level of safety on the nation’s waterways. “Rather than screen one boat six times, we need to develop a program to screen six boats one time,” Schumer said in February.

The Coast Guard attributes 70 percent of boating accidents to operator error. Common sense would dictate making such errors harder, rather than easier, to commit. It is naive to assume that only well-trained boaters will pilot outings on larger vessels, or that even seasoned boaters would not benefit from clear capacity limits that don’t require searching, or worse, guessing.

Overcrowding may not have caused the three tragic deaths on July 4, but the Long Island boat’s load cannot have made the vessel safer, either. There is no reason for a simple safety measure such as requiring capacity labels to stop at 20 feet.

This time, the place between Schumer and a camera might be a safer one.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us,” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s book The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth.

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