The Wreck of the Karen E in the Long Island Sound

On August 9, 1981, the owner of the Karen E, a 36-foot powerboat, took his wife, his ten-year-old daughter—for whom he had named the yacht—and his neighbors and their young daughter on a day cruise from Connecticut to Montauk on Long Island. That evening, they headed for home across the Long Island Sound when the boat’s electronics failed. Soon thereafter, one of the boat’s two engines stalled as well. The owner of the Karen E made contact with a nearby marina, which dispatched a small rescue boat. He also began trying to hail other passing boats for assistance.

One of those boats was a 96-foot tug boat, the David McCallister, which was pulling a barge loaded with 6,400 tons of dry cement. When the Karen E pulled alongside, just before midnight, the crew of the tug said they told the Karen E to head to a nearby buoy where the Coast Guard could meet them. When the Karen E pulled off, however, the tug boat crew was apparently unaware in the darkness that the Karen E had not actually turned to head toward the buoy. Instead the Karen E ended up in the tug boat’s wake, where it became entangled in the tow line, with the barge bearing down. A few minutes after midnight, the barge slammed into the Karen E and the powerboat capsized.

Of the six people on board the Karen E, including the two children, only the owner survived. Conflicting accounts were presented in court, before the Coast Guard hearing officers, and in the media. Was the tragic wreck an example of the dangers of the tug boat industry? Or was it an example of the danger of operating pleasure boats in the ocean with insufficient nautical training? In the end, the Coast Guard concluded both parties shared blame. The civil suits ended in settlement, with only the family of the neighbor couple receiving payment—$1.3 million from the Karen E’s owner’s insurance; $200,000 from the tug boat owners; $50,000 from the company that built the Karen E; and $15,000 from the Karen E marina.

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