The Walla Walla ferry can carry a maximum of 2,000 passengers on its run 10 times daily between Kingston and Edmonds, Wash., but it has life rafts for only 600 people if they must abandon ship.
Officials of Washington State Ferries and the U.S. Coast Guard, which regulates maritime safety, say the 440-foot-long ferry is compliant with federal safety regulations, and there is no reason for concern.
Safety advocates and the National Transportation Safety Board disagree. They say — 100 years after the sinking of the Titanic — another disaster of a passenger vessel could happen.
Passenger boats — which include ferries, tour and dinner-cruise vessels, whale-watching boats and charter fishing boats — carry more than 200 million passengers annually on domestic routes along U.S. coastlines and on rivers, lakes, bays and sounds.
The Coast Guard requires a life jacket for each passenger, but its regulations pertaining to survival craft vary, depending on a boat's distance from shore, water temperature, vessel design, hull material and other equipment carried.
Some passenger vessels are allowed to operate with no survival craft, and some can operate with survival craft for only a percentage of the maximum number of people allowed aboard.
The rules require many passenger vessels to use survival craft such as life rafts or lifeboats that keep survivors fully out of the water and prevent hypothermia. Many vessels are equipped instead with floats that prevent drowning but don't guard against hypothermia because people using them are in the water.
Safety advocates say a new law that takes effect in 2015 will be a big safety step forward, because it will require that all survival craft must keep passengers fully out of the water.
Big concern remains
The law, though, won't remedy the biggest concern of safety advocates and the National Transportation Safety Board: requiring enough of that equipment for the maximum number of occupants allowed on each vessel.
Barney Turlo, who commanded two Coast Guard marine safety offices before retiring, says passenger vessels should be equipped with out-of-the-water survival equipment for all passengers because studies have shown that "hypothermia is a grave concern."
According to a 2003 Transport Canada study, "After 30 minutes or more of immersion, death may occur from hypothermia."
Alan Steinman, the Coast Guard's former health and safety director, said at a fishing industry meeting in 2003 that people can go into cold shock and die in three to five minutes after immersion in cold water.
The Coast Guard's definition of cold water is an average monthly temperature of 59 degrees, though many hypothermia researchers say water 10 degrees warmer should be considered cold. According to the National Oceanographic Data Center, the average monthly temperature of the water near Seattle is 46-56 degrees.
Coast Guard spokeswoman Lisa Novak says that the number of hypothermia-related fatalities in the small passenger vessel industry is "historically minimal."
In December 1993, charter-fishing vessel El Toro II, with 23 people aboard, sank in Chesapeake Bay. The vessel was equipped with life floats for 20 people that did not protect them from immersion in the water. Two passengers and one crew member died from hypothermia