This could have been a lot worse

Published on September 8th, 2022

In this report by The Newport Daily News, an incident with four notable Rhode Island residents was nearly tragic:


They never really saw it coming.

Rob and Pat Connerney, along with two others, were aboard their 30-foot sailboat competing in a regatta when a larger powerboat approached at a high rate of speed. The Connerneys, along with National Sailing Hall of Fame inductee Ed Adams and his wife Meredith, could only brace for the contact as they were little more than sitting ducks on Narragansett Bay.

The powerboat, estimated to be traveling better than 30 knots by Rob Connerney, collided with the sailboat, ripping off the bow and rendering it disabled. Had the powerboat arrived a fraction of a second later, the consequences could be been devastating.

“We came within six feet of getting killed, the four of us,” Rob Connerney said. “There was no way we were going to be able to move to get out of his way. He was going way too fast. It’s like a pedestrian getting hit by an automobile. There’s no ability to get out of the way.”

The two couples aboard his Shields were competing in the Aloha Cup Regatta organized by the Ida Lewis Yacht Club on August 21. Their boat — nestled between Gould Island and Naval Station Newport, north of the Newport Pell Bridge — was in front when the powerboat made its way toward the 8-boat fleet.

“Part of my concern is the powerboats seem to point straight at you, and they don’t seem to understand the sailboat is kind of worried,” Pat Connerney said. “They don’t know if the skipper is watching or not watching. In this case, the guy wasn’t watching.

“We didn’t have a lot of lead time,” she explained. “We saw him only moments before he hit us because we were racing. Surprisingly, we didn’t hear him further out, but that wouldn’t have mattered.”

Rob Connerney said there were 11 people aboard the powerboat and perhaps the driver was distracted.

“The captain of a boat has to have command of his vessel and has to operate it in a safe manner,” he said. “This guy wasn’t paying attention. He wasn’t looking where he was going. He hit us going 35 mph, and if he hit us 6 feet back in the boat, we’d all have been dead.”

According to Michael Healey, spokesperson for the state Department of Environmental Management, the Coast Guard responded to the incident, which occurred around 4:00 pm.

“The next day, both the powerboat owner and sailboat owner filled out accident report forms as required by law and submitted them to our Division of Law Enforcement,” Healey wrote in an email to The Daily News. “There were no injuries, only property damage, and now the matter is between the parties’ insurers. At this point, there’s no need for further investigation.”

The Connerneys said they never came face to face with the man in the other boat, who was about a quarter mile away when he finally came to a stop. The couple stressed they didn’t want to make it a powerboat versus sailboat issue, but rather “start a dialogue” about boating safety.

Narragansett Bay has significant ‘user conflict’
Part of the issue, according to Sail Newport Executive Director Brad Read, is “user conflict” on Narragansett Bay and Newport Harbor. Whether it’s recreational powerboats, regattas, commercial fishermen, the annual Save the Bay swim or The Ocean Race, the waters off Newport are busy during the summertime.

“All of those different events can lead to user conflict,” Read said. “There is a communication gap that exists within the marine community, and maybe it’s not just us. It’s probably all around the country.”

Read touted the work of Newport Harbormaster Stephen Land for trying to quell some of that conflict, but ultimately, “people need to know what’s going on.”

The August 21 collision came nearly three years to the day after the death of Sandra G. Tartaglino. The 60-year-old Tiverton resident was helming a catamaran in the Newport 100 Regatta when a powerboat struck her vessel. Both crashes occurred in nearly the same location on the bay.

Better Bay Alliance established to educate boaters
In the wake of Tartaglino’s death, three sailors — Steve Prime, David Lussier and Michael Keyworth — established the Better Bay Alliance to help educate boaters and perhaps shrink the communication gap mentioned by Read.

At betterbayalliance.org, boaters can find several resources, including a calendar of events, notices to sailors, weather conditions and, perhaps most importantly, educational tools.

Prime, speaking to The Daily News, said there are some 24,000 boats registered in Rhode Island, and there has to be an “understanding that we all share the water.”

One aspect that could be improved on a statewide level is mandatory licensing. Prime, a Middletown resident, said those born before January 1, 1986, are not required to have an operators’ license, and “the people who can afford these bigger boats were all born before that.”

“So it stands to reason that licensing needs to be expanded and, along with it, boating education — the rules of the road,” he said. “We’re trying to convince the boating public that the continuing education on the topic of boating only makes your experience better and safer for everyone around you.”

Pat Connerney, once a member of the U.S. Sailing Team, said since the crash, she can’t stop thinking about it. She replays it in her head and knows just how fortunate she and the other members of the crew are to be able to tell the tale.

“It’s hard to stop realizing how close we came to being seriously injured or worse,” she said. “You can’t believe how fast he was going when he hit us.”

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