By Jason Johnson and Gabriel Tynes
Nearly four years after a powerful thunderstorm claimed the lives of six sailors during the Dauphin Island Regatta, the United States Coast Guard (USCG) recently released a final report from its investigation into what caused the 2015 maritime tragedy. Meanwhile, a civil lawsuit filed in federal court carries forward, with survivors and victims’ families looking to pin the blame on race organizers.
The Coast Guard’s investigation suggested miscommunication among the event’s organizer, Fairhope Yacht Club (FYC), and a lack of awareness by participants left hundreds of sailors — many with years of experience — in the middle of an unusually strong thunderstorm with little time to prepare.
But the report also noted the thunderstorm that brought winds of close to 60 mph and 10-foot swells crashing into contestants shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone, because it was part of a system that had been moving toward Alabama for hours.
The race was complete at the time it arrived, but the storm struck many vessels on their return voyage, capsizing some. Killed were 71-year-old J.C. Brown of Mobile, Kristopher Beall, 27, of Pineville, Louisiana; Adam Clark, 17, of Mobile; Robert Delaney, 72, of Madison, Mississippi; William Glenn Massey, 67, of Daphne; and Robert Thomas, 50, of Pickens, Mississippi.
The Coast Guard’s report goes on to state that a USCG patrol commander telephoned race organizers notifying them there was severe weather headed toward Mobile Bay, but they were of the opinion that it was going to move to the north and not affect the area where the regatta was happening.
“They decided not to pass the information over the designated race channel,” the report says. “The passing of a ‘weather alert’ to the racers, those who were actively monitoring the designated race channel, may have given participants an hour or more of advance notice to prepare for the incoming weather.”
Even if a weather alert had gone out, there’s no guarantee everyone would have heard it.
While most participants had a marine VHF radio, the investigation revealed many sailors kept those devices stored in areas that limited crewmembers’ ability to hear urgent messages. The report said many race participants also failed to wear or were unable to access life jackets.
In February 2018, Jane Brown sued FYC, claiming organizers ignored repeated weather warnings and caved to sponsorships rather than cancel the race. Furthermore, she claimed race organizers failed to provide immediate aid to distressed sailors. Brown sought $1.5 million in damages.
Survivor Lennard Luiten, captain of the 24-foot sailboat RAZR that was carrying Brown, Clark and two other sailors, joined the suit months later along with Clark’s mother, Angela Tew, and Beall’s widow, Amanda. Luiten was left treading water overnight in Mobile Bay without a flotation device, but he was rescued the next day.
Brown’s body was never found, but Jane Brown has since settled with FYC, according to court documents. The daughter of Robert Thomas also settled a related case in state court, according to news reports.
Luiten, Beall and Tew are still pursuing the lawsuit, having asserted claims against FYC that “arose out of the negligent, grossly negligent, reckless and wanton manner in which FYC planned and conducted the 2015 Dauphin Island race and, thereby, caused the deaths of J.C. Brown and Adam Clark and related damages to Jane Brown and Angelina Tew and emotional and psychological distress and related damages to Lennard Luiten.” Together, they are seeking a trial for an award of punitive damages to be determined by a jury.
An amended complaint was filed in March and FYC answered with counterclaims against Luiten and his father, Robert, the owner of the boat. Race organizers claim the boat owner and captain were responsible for the crew and further, the plaintiffs failed to adequately prepare for imminent bad weather and also neglected to wear life jackets.
“Robert Luiten, as owner of the RAZR, breached his duties and failed to act reasonably in his maintenance, operation, management and navigation of the RAZR during the 2015 Dauphin Island race and to ensure that she was in all respects seaworthy and reasonably suited for her intended voyage and failed to provide reasonable instruction to the crew, including Lennard Luiten, J.C. Brown, and Adam Clark,” the FYC claims.
Most recently, FYC filed a motion to dismiss Beall’s claims, arguing against her standing as administratrix of her late husband’s estate, while also citing a one-year statute of limitations on wrongful death claims in their home state of Louisiana. Beall has yet to respond to the motion. A tentative trial in the case has been scheduled for September.
In its report, USCG said it’s ultimately up to those commanding a vessel to ensure the safety of themselves and their crew. However, investigators also suggested there was a “noticeable level of overconfidence” among some of the sailors who were interviewed after the event.
“Investigators heard many times, ‘we’re sailors; we sail in all kinds of weather,’” the report reads. “While this may be true, investigators believe that in those circumstances the crew is aware of and prepared for approaching events. This event started with optimal sailing conditions, and the high level of comfort with this lulled many of the participants into a false sense of safety.”
According to the report, FYC was also unable to provide emergency responders with updated crew lists during and after the thunderstorm. Investigators wrote that “significantly contributed to USCG’s inability to determine who was onboard which vessel, exactly how many people participated in the race and how many were potentially in the water.”
However, USCG also evaluated its own role in the events leading up to the 2015 regatta.
Investigators noted USCG had issued a “marine event permit” for the regatta, but according to their interviews, there was a lack of communication about the “responsibilities and authority” USCG patrol commanders overseeing race had — including the authority to call it off.
The report suggests that lack of communication “may have contributed to Coast Guard personnel being unaware of their authority to terminate the event due to weather.” The report recommended USCG change its procedures to ensure that information is clearly conveyed.
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