When the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Virgin Islands charged Rick Smith with “seaman’s manslaughter” last fall, it kicked off months of press coverage and a fire hose of sailor opinions about what exactly happened onboard Smith’s yawl Cimarron that led to the death of David Pontious, and whether Smith did a proper job as captain.
But the incident seemed fairly mysterious to me — and without any particular safety lessons — until I read THE TRAGEDY OF DAVID PONTIOUS: Did a Scopolamine Patch Drive Him to Suicide? by Charles Doane. I think it’s must-reading for all of us who go to sea not knowing what might go wrong next, and that Charlie deserves an award for his excellent reporting and analysis.
Actually, I’ve probably discussed the death of David Pontious more than most sailors because Rick Smith and Cimarron typically summer in my home harbor. The opinion I often heard from experienced skippers, and share, goes like this: While Smith probably should have done more when Pontius apparently jumped overboard, it’s very unlikely that any action would have been effective given the circumstances, and it was hard to understand why charges were pressed. Heck, a 2015 USCG investigation seemed to clear Smith and the federal judge quickly acquitted him in January.
The real mystery, then, was what caused a purportedly healthy man with lots of offshore experience to fall into a violent hallucinatory state. And now that Charlie has highlighted his research and timeline, the likely trigger seems to be the Transderm scopolamine patches that Pontius got from the Cimarron crew for sea sickness and likely mixed with other prescription meds.
Like Charlie, I too have seen people at sea react strangely to Transderm patches, though I failed to recall that in regard to the Pontius tragedy. I also failed to think of the should-be-obvious point that Doane elicited from the safety expert Mario Vittone:
Vittone also said he felt Smith’s first mistake was not taking action when Pontious started hallucinating: “My overarching feeling was that as soon as he started to hallucinate then what Smith had was a medical emergency on his boat, and that’s when you start calling. I wouldn’t have called a mayday, but I would have put out a pan-pan. Maybe I have options. Maybe there’s a Coast Guard cutter 30 miles away that can take him off the boat. Who knows?”
In hindsight, an apparent psychotic break is as much a possible danger on a small vessel as a growing leak, but I’m not at all sure that I would have taken early action either. And that’s exactly why we should be grateful for high-quality journalism about when things go wrong. “THE TRAGEDY OF DAVID PONTIOUS: Did a Scopolamine Patch Drive Him to Suicide?” is also available on Charlie’s own site www.WaveTrain.net.
This article was syndicated from Panbo