By John K. Fulweiler

Youth or stupidity (or a soupcon of both) share the common element of driving many a bad decision. The thing with youth is that the passage of time lays down all those bad wakes whereas with stupid, well you can’t fix stupid, right? This cogency leads me to the observation that the maritime law doesn’t seem to care much whether you’re stupid or jacked on immaturity – either way a penalty awaits.

I may have lost too much tide in my life’s harbor to relate to the fellow (and yeah, it seems to be a gender-biased phenomena) who leaps from the upper decks of a passenger ferry. My informal survey suggests that typically the leap, plunge, backflip or plummet occurs as the ferry approaches a point of disembarkation. (I haven’t found an instance where a leap of furious enthusiasm occurred as the ferry broke ground to a destination; presumably, the satisfaction of such endeavors would be lost as the party sailed on without you.) The officials will tell you such antics threaten vessel safety, but for me the issue is delay. Time and schedules are too precious in this digital lattice of life to be interfered with by youth or stupidity.

No matter how effective the display, the wayward passenger who leaps before landing faces a federal statute (46 U.S.C. 2302(a)) descriptively titled: “Penalties for negligent operation and interfering with safe operation.” Congress amended this statute in 1998 by including the language “or interfering with the safe operation of a vessel, so as to endanger” the life, limb or property of a person. Without leaping off the research rail myself, my understanding is that prior to the amendment, the statute only addressed “operations,” leaving the Coast Guard without a remedy to pursue the young or stupid passenger. That’s changed now, and with a civil penalty of $5,000 in the context of a recreational vessel and $25,000 for any other vessel, well the Coast Guard has a sturdy paddle to dole out discipline.

Bad behavior is cataloged in other ways, too. There’s the wake jumping, the cutting in front of larger boats, and the drinking while boating, to name a few. Penalties for these endeavors may spring from federal or state law. Although not explicit, you can read an underlying intent to limit bad behavior in the Racing Rules of Sailing when it speaks at Rule 2 to “Fair Sailing” and “compliance with recognized principles of sportsmanship and fair play.”

I’ve never been aboard or driven a launch or ferry when a passenger sought a seaward disembarkation, but I know I’d be whipped up if it happened on my watch. I remember driving heavily laden launches in dark Block Island waters with passengers full of the night’s fun. None of those passengers (ever) leapt into the harbor. If they had, I’ll admit it would’ve interfered with the operation of the vessel.

What I remember of that launch driving experience is sometimes catching an overly-scoped anchor line on the launch’s skeg as we skittered along. At night, it wasn’t something you could immediately identify as having happened, sort of like realizing you’ve grounded on the light silt of a channel split in the ICW. Those style launches moved smartly and the physics of the snag caused the anchored sailboat to suddenly start hurtling toward the launch’s amidships. The sudden whoops and hollers of my passengers would have me dropping the clutch into reverse and hurrying the hull backwards, scuppers backfilling, as I got myself parallel to the sailboat and on we went. No harm, no foul.

I miss those days. I miss the comradery of common sense. There’s a lot of coddled, fatuousness everywhere. Maybe it’s me maturing into seas of grouchiness. I hope that’s it.

Underway and making way.

John FulweilerJohn K. Fulweiler, Esq. is a Proctor-in-Admiralty representing individuals and small businesses in maritime matters including personal injury claims throughout the East and Gulf Coasts and with his office in Newport, Rhode Island. He can be reached at 1-800-383-MAYDAY (6293), or visit his website at

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