New details from Texas A&M on deadly boat wreck

July 17, 2009 11:55:12 AM PDT
The fatal capsizing of a Texas A&M university racing boat last summer was due to severe design flaws and not lacking maintenance as suggested by a Coast Guard investigation, school investigators concluded in a report released Friday. School investigators blamed the incident squarely on the boat's construction and said previous repairs done by students and crew members did not cause the accident.

The repairs had "absolutely, positively, no contribution whatsoever," said Jerry Brown, assistant general counsel for the Texas A&M University System and one of the investigators.

Their findings differ sharply from those of the Coast Guard, which concluded in a report issued in December that the June 2008 sinking of the Cynthia Woods in the Gulf of Mexico was largely due to repairs that had been made to the 38-foot-boat and several incidents in which it was grounded.

The boat sank during a regatta to Vera Cruz, Mexico, after its 5,000-pound keel snapped off and turned the vessel upside down within a minute. Safety officer Roger Stone died after pushing two students to safety, and five crew members drifted in the Gulf for 26 hours before being rescued.

Among the structural problems A&M investigators targeted was the hull. According to the report, the thickness of the hull was only a third of the minimum standards under universally followed guidelines used for boats in racing competitions.

The 5,000-pound keel tore off the hull's thin fiberglass laminate like it was being cut with a can opener, investigators said. The trade-off for a thinner hull is greater speed, but investigators said A&M had not been aware that the design of the Cynthia Woods fell below guidelines.

The school report could affect a lawsuit filed by Stone's widow against the boat's manufacturer, Cape Fear Yacht Works. Linda Stone is suing the company for unspecified damages.

Cape Fear said it stands behind the previous findings of the Coast Guard.

"We are disappointed to hear Texas A&M University refuses to accept any responsibility for the events related to the June 2008 capsizing of the Cynthia Woods," the company said in a statement.

Andrew Strong, the general counsel for the A&M system, said the university does not plan to sue.

Morris Foster, chairman of the A&M System Board of Regents, called it "critical" that A&M investigators meet with the Coast Guard to try and reconcile the conflicting conclusions.

A Coast Guard spokesman did not immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

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