Suicide at sea – whose fault is it?

20 Dec

The charter yacht Cimarron

This is a tricky one and I am not 100% sure where I come down on this. I would have fully backed the captain had his behavior after the suicide been different but he didn’t (apparently) follow some basic seamanship rules and now has been charged with manslaughter. Here is the story as we best can tell and I say ‘as best we can tell’ because there are some big gaps that need filling in.

Captain Rick Smith runs a charter business out of Camden, Maine and St. John in the U.S. Virgin islands aboard his 43-foot yawl, Cimarron, and has been doing so for a number of years. In October 2015 he and a crew were delivering the yacht to the winter sailing grounds when one of the crew members, a man by the name of David Pontious, suddenly jumped overboard and drowned. In court filings Captain Smith said that Pontious had been seasick for three days and had been growing increasingly paranoid. He also stated that Pontious had attacked him minutes before jumping overboard. Now, almost three years later, the federal court in St John has begun to lay out their case against Rick Smith. Why suddenly three years after the incident took place are they only now getting around to pressing charges? Beats me except it may just be that they are running on ‘island time.’

I would be calling total BS on the whole thing and would have stated that Smith, the captain, should not be charged had he acted differently in the moments after Pontious jumped overboard. According to the other crew there was zero attempt made to get Pontious back on board. No lifebouy was tossed and there was no grid pattern search done to look for him. Indeed it took Smith 32 hours before he managed to raise another vessel on the VHF asking them to keep a lookout for Pontious. This kind of gross negligence has me feeling that there is something a little suspect about our good captain. The fact that he told authorities that he  didn’t try and locate Pontious was because he feared for his safety and the safety of the other crew members rings a little bit hollow to me.  Smith stated that he saw Pontius go under and not resurface and that is why he did not turn back and search. Plus, he added, that he was scared to death that if Pontius got back on the vessel, he would throw other people overboard. I am calling BS on that statement as well. As I said from the outset I am not sure where I come down on this but I do think this whole incident is about a Ship of Fools and believe me I have come across some complete nut jobs in the 40-plus years I have been making a living sailing.

According to court documents, the prosecution plans to call at least two maritime experts who will testify that Smith, as captain, should have intervened long before Pontious jumped from the Cimarron. “I would say that there were a number of failures on the captain’s part that lead up to the situation in the first place,” wrote Capt. Glen Allen, a government witness and U.S. Coast Guard licensed captain for more than 30 years. Allen also stated that Smith did not do enough to vet Pontious before allowing him on board and should have altered course to the nearest safe harbor once it was clear Pontious was suffering.

“I find the action of the captain after the victim jumped overboard totally unacceptable,” Allen wrote. “It would seem to me that you would make some attempt at saving this life even if I thought it would do no good – every person deserves at least a fighting chance.”

I have plied the waters between Maine and the Caribbean for many years and can testify that there are some very sketchy people looking for rides too and from the tropics. That, in many ways, is the fun of it and Jimmy Buffett knew it as well when he wrote in his song Banana Republic, “some are running tons of ganga some are running from the IRS.” That’s not all they are running from or toward. I think  that the witness that Smith’s defense team engaged summed this whole mess succinctly when he wrote, “I believe the responsibility for the loss of Mr. Pontious is solely the fault of Mr. Pontious himself.”  That much I agree with.
Captain Rick Smith

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Brian Hancock – Owner Great Circle Sails

This article was syndicated from Great Circle Sails Blog

Comments

  1. Mark Einstein

    This is a tragic story. I met Captain Smith a few weeks ago here in St. Thomas and have had numerous conversations with him about this horrible situation. Being a blue water passage making charter captain myself, I fully understand the mental, physical and psychological challenges that go with the territory. However, in this case, I believe the captain’s state of mind at the time of the incident was purely focused on the defense of himself, his crew and his boat. I would conclude that his subsequent actions were not negligence, but self-defense. Any attempt to bring the attacker back onboard the vessel would have invited more deadly incidents, putting the lives of his crew and himself right back into harm’s way. Given the conditions – 350 miles from anywhere, night time on a small boat, high seas and brisk wind, most likely sleep deprived captain and crew, and an uncontrollable, violent crew member that the captain had never met before – If Captain Smith was, indeed, attacked – and if Pontius did, in fact, jump over the side, then, Smith should not be found guilty of manslaughter and should be exonerated by the court as he was by the US Coast Guard at the time of the incident three years ago. Were there there things that could have been done differently? Of course – but, hindsight is always 20-20.

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