After two dangerous incidents on party boats in North Texas, officials stress safety

Posted Sunday, Sep. 15, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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The idea is to have a good time while listening to music, maybe do a little dancing and share a few drinks with your friends, while also cruising around a lake on a party boat.

But the deaths of two party boat passengers in three months in North Texas — both incidents that involved passengers who went overboard after drinking too much — highlight the dangers of having too much of a good time, even when someone else is at the helm.

The incidents also highlight how different party boat regulations are — and what crews are ultimately responsible for — if the boat is operating on waterways controlled by a state or federal agency.

The latest North Texas incident occurred Labor Day weekend when George Rodriguez of Mesquite reportedly fell from the upper deck of a party boat while on a family outing at Lake Lewisville. Although an autopsy has not been completed, Rodriguez reportedly had been drinking.

During the July Fourth weekend, Trevor Loughlin went out on a party boat on Lake Grapevine but no one noticed he had fallen overboard until the boat returned to the dock. An autopsy from the Tarrant County medical examiner said Loughlin had a 0.254 alcohol level.

“I think it’s up to folks to watch themselves,” said Capt. Neal Bieler, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife in Fort Worth. “These boats have captains, but they are not law enforcement people.”

“It’s not so much licensing is the problem. It’s the partying aspect we cannot regulate. Until the Legislature bans drinking on the water, we will continue to have these kinds of incidents,” he said.

Differing regulations

According to the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife, a party boat is defined as a vessel that is at least 30 feet in length and is rented or leased by a group with more than six occupants.

The person piloting the craft must be 21 years old and employed by the boat’s owner. The operator must also complete an exam and must have four hours of observing and four hours of driving a boat. The pilot must also complete a boating safety course.

A party boat also must be inspected by the state annually and have safety equipment and fire extinguishers on board.

The state doesn’t require party boats have lifeguards, but they are required to have life jackets for each passenger. Passengers 13 and under are required to wear life jackets, but adults are not.

The captain is required to provide verbal and written safety information, and to tell people if a lifeguard is not on board. Passengers must also sign the form stating that they understand the rules.

Bieler said passengers on party boats in state-controlled waters are expected to take responsibility for themselves. He added that there is no open container law for boaters.

The requirements for operating a party boat in coastal waters, or lakes that cross state lines such as Lake Texoma, where the Coast Guard has jurisdiction, are more stringent.

A captain licensed by the Coast Guard must complete an exam and also have anywhere from 90 to 360 days on board a craft.

Lt. Edward Lacy, chief of domestic vessel inspection for the U.S. Coast Guard office in Houston, said depending on the type of boat, several deckhands would be on board to fight fires or save passengers who fall overboard.

“The rules are indeed more strict if we are talking about a vessel carrying more than six passengers,” Lacy said.

Two fatal incidents

Details are sketchy about what happened to Rodriguez on Aug. 30 while he was attending a birthday party with family and friends on board a 50-passenger party boat.

Stormy McCuistion, a game warden who investigated the accident, said that there were 17 passengers on the boat along with one crew member and that the boat was operated by Just for Fun, a company at Lake Lewisville.

There was alcohol on board and passengers reported that Rodriguez was drinking. But no one saw Rodriguez fall overboard, nor did they see him in the water, McCuistion said.

“No one knew if he fell off, jumped off or was pushed off. It’s hard to investigate something when you’re not there,” he said.

Cody Jones, an assistant commander and boating safety administrator with the state parks department, said the accident will be officially listed as a drowning.

Owners of Just for Fun could not be reached for comment.

In the Lake Grapevine case, no one noticed Loughlin was missing from the party boat until they were boarding a charter bus for Dallas. Sixty people went out, but only 59 returned. The Grapevine police department said the headcount wasn’t done until the boat returned to the Silver Lake Marina.

His body was found two days later near Mustang Island and his death was ruled a fresh water drowning.

According to a police report, the party boat captain and his assistant told police that they did not see Loughlin in the water when the boat left Mustang Island.

The party boat operator told police that Loughlin was among those who signed the passenger list — something people are supposed to do when boarding and leaving the boat. But the crew said it can be difficult to enforce the rule if people are drinking.

Attempts to reach the party boat operator, Tejas Fun/Waterway Adventures, by the Star-Telegram were unsuccessful.

‘Idiot-proof’ excursions

A party boat operator on Possum Kingdom Lake said when he takes passengers out for a cruise the atmosphere is all about fun with a big emphasis on safety and responsibility.

Jay Naylor, who owns Naylor by the Water, operates PK Party Palace on Possum Kingdom Lake. Naylor’s party boat crew consists of the driver and several deck hands, depending on the size of the boat.

The crew watches for danger, but the passengers also must police themselves, he said

“We tell people we don’t have lifeguards on board and we show them how to put on the life jackets and tell them not to jump off of the deck,” Naylor said, describing the safety drill he goes through before each excursion.

Naylor said that when his party boat makes a stop so passengers can swim, he does a head count when he is ready to continue cruising around the lake. He also keeps a passenger list on shore.

Naylor also tells groups renting his party boat that they should have a designated person — like a designated driver — to make sure things don’t get out of hand.

Naylor said he doesn’t sell food or alcohol to his passengers, although he allows them to bring their supplies on board.

“When people are having cocktails, we have to make it [the boating experience] idiot-proof,” he said.

Elizabeth Campbell, 817-390-7696 Twitter: @fwstliz

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