Village Community Boathouse–report on rowing accident at Pier 25

On Tuesday, June 5, we had a large turnout for our regular community rowing session. Most of those present were booksellers from Book Expo who had come to the boathouse for a short talk by Robert Sullivan, who has a forthcoming book on the Revolutionary War (Bob rowed with us two years ago during a reenactment of the Evacuation of Brooklyn, and wrote about it in one of his chapters). Shortly before 5 we launched our first gig, with five community rowers aboard. Three of them were booksellers who stayed on after Bob’s event and two were ‘walk-ins’ from the community. None of the five had rowed with us before. There were also two VCB members on board. Both of them had taken our coxswain training course, and thus were qualified to captain our boats within the confines of the ‘embayment—that is, the area between Pier 40 and Pier 34 that comprises our protected rowing area (longer rows outside the embayment require a ‘senior coxswain’ with more training and experience to be in charge). The VCB member who was steering had also taken the NY State Safe Boating course that we offer every year. Both members consulted a tide table before the row and were aware the tide was ebbing and in the middle of the cycle, when its flow is strongest.Because of the ebb, and because the rowers were mostly inexperienced, we planned an ‘embayment row’–all boats were clearly instructed to remain in the basin between the piers. Nevertheless, the coxswain of the first boat decided to venture outside the embayment to “take a peek” down the river. Unfortunately, he chose the south end of the basin to do this. Had he pulled out at the north end, near Pier 40, he would have had ample time to turn the boat and get back in. As the boat left the embayment, the coordinators of the rowing session saw what was happening and called via marine radio and cellphone to recall the crew. But the boat was caught by the current. Despite hard ‘upstream’ rowing the crew could not get back into the protected waters of the embayment.

The Accident:

By cellphone, the coordinators instructed the VCB members on board that, rather than continue to try to row against the current, they should turn downstream and head for the dock on the south side of Pier 25, in ‘Stuyvesant Cove.’ There the crew could get out of the boat and a more
experienced crew could row it back to Pier 40 later, once the tide had turned. Unfortunately, the inexperienced coxswain steered for Pier 26 (which he initially thought was his destination) and then changed course in an attempt to clear Pier 25, which protrudes approximately 100 feet farther out into the river (see photo below).

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Despite hard rowing by the crew, the gig could not quite clear Pier 25 and got pinned by the ebb current against the piling on the northwest corner. It rode up on the piling, tipped towards the current, and then quickly filled and rolled. All seven people on board went in the water. Five of them either climbed up or were helped up onto the cross beam that runs between the pilings below the pier deck, and were eventually picked up by the Harbor Unit (NYPD). The two in the bow went around the head of the pier on the current; one swam to the dock in the embayment and the other was picked up nearby by the Marine Unit (FDNY). All seven were wearing properlyfastened PFDs. Five refused medical attention, but two went by FDNY ambulance to Beekman Hospital, one with a mild concussion (she was hit on the back of the head, but does not remember by what) and the other suffering from shock and exposure. Both were released later that evening.

After the accident:
That evening we called and/or wrote the Harbor Unit and the Marine Unit to thank them for their amazingly fast response and to go over our safety guidelines with them; the heads of both services, Inspector David Driscoll and Chief Jim Dalton, indicated that they were satisfied that we had good procedures in place, and were particularly pleased that everyone aboard was wearing a vest. We also sent a preliminary account of the accident to the Hudson River Park Trust, and spoke to Jim Gill and John Mulvey. Within our own community, we posted a report on the NYC Water Trail Google group to correct some of the misinformation in press accounts of the accident and to remind other human-powered boaters of the hazards of the ‘tea strainer’ scenario, when currents run swiftly past fixed objects like pilings. We have also reached out to sister boating groups as far away as Massachusetts to ask for their feedback on the accident and our safety guidelines.
Finally, we have kept in close contact with all of the five community rowers who were in the boat. All of them have indicated their support for the boathouse and our mission, and one of them has already been out rowing with us again.

In a nutshell, we erred by giving responsibility for a crew of inexperienced rowers to an insufficiently-trained coxswain who didn’t follow our rules. The coxswain disregarded the coordinator’s instructions to stay in the basin. Furthermore he did not clearly understand the workings of the tide, as evidenced by his decision to leave the basin at the southwest corner of the basin and his subsequent decision to try to row across a fast-moving current and around the protruding corner of Pier 25. Finally, he was confused about the arrangement of the piers south of our embayment (that both piers have been under construction for several years, and that Pier 26 remains unfinished, may well have added to his confusion). In the past, when crews have been ‘washed down’ by the tide, or, on longer outings, simply
misjudged conditions and been unable to row back to Pier 40, Pier 25 has always been our preferred fallback—a sheltered place to rest and, if necessary, gather a relief crew. In hindsight, it would have been better to ask this crew to row east to the sea wall or the kayak dock on the north side of Pier 26. Although there is no way to climb up or down the sea wall, and the kayak dock is inaccessible from the upland because of construction, a stop there would have allowed time for
the crew to rest out of the current and for us to confer on the best course of action (we might have sent replacement rowers and a more experienced cox, called for a tow, or simply waited for the tide to turn).
On the positive side, our fundamental safety procedures were followed, and a more serious accident was averted. Thanks to our ‘cruise reports,’ which we fill complete before any of our boats leaves the pier, we had a clear record of everyone who was on board, including emergency contact numbers for each of them. And of course everyone had a life vest on, per boathouse policy. Just as important was the quick help from the fire and police departments, who together form a key part of the boater safety network in the harbor.

Going forward:
We have spent years developing our training and safety procedures, and are reluctant to propose major changes until we have had time to fully discuss and process this accident. In particular, and as noted above, we want to create a sort of ‘peer review’ process in which we gather input from other boating groups who run similar operations or have experience with similar conditions. That said, we are moving to implement some immediate changes. On the training and development side, we will be emphasizing, in both our pre-row orientations and our coxswain training sessions, the importance of listening to coordinators and following directions. We need to ensure that even when a coxswain is not intending to leave the embayment he or she has a solid understanding of the workings of the wind and the tide out on the river and, in particular, the hazards of strong currents at the pierhead line. We already devote a good deal of time to this in
our training sessions, and obviously this episode will in itself become a powerful teaching tool. But we can and will do more to help trainees recognize and steer clear of potentially hazardous situations. We also we need to do a better job of recognizing the limits of the individuals we are placing in boats. On the procedural side, this may mean tightening up our requirements to include more experienced rowers in each boat, even for embayment rows, or requiring a ‘senior’ coxswain to lead all cruises when a majority of the rowers on board are inexperienced. In the near term, we have asked our corps of senior coxswains—32 in all—to spend as much time at the boathouse as they can, and to join in the coxswain instruction process as mentors. As we move ahead with the project of reviewing and revising our training and our safety guidelines, we welcome comments and constructive criticism from all interested groups and
individuals. We understand the ‘near miss’ nature of this accident and are determined to see that nothing similar happens again. At the same time, we hope it’s clear that the accident in no way belies the intense focus on safety in the non-motorized boating community. Last year community boating groups like ours safely put more than 50,000 individuals on the water in New York Harbor; we ourselves took out more than 1,500 people. This was our first accident in 15 years of operation. While we know it was frightening for the people involved, an accident that ends well can sometimes be a blessing in disguise for a
community that promotes activities with inherent risk. It has certainly reminded us that we cannot afford to be complacent about safety.

The Village Community Boathouse Board of Directors
Sally Curtis, President
Phil Yee, Vice President
Rob Buchanan, Corresponding Secretary
David Shehigian, Recording Secretary
Ruth Lindner, Treasurer
Dave Clayton
Frank Cervi

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