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Charter boat death raises safety questions

Four days after a man drowned after falling off a charter boat on Lake Norman, law enforcement officials have released no information about the cause of the accident, including whether safety procedures were followed by the boat’s operator.

Crews continued to search Thursday for the body of Matthew Bell, 33, of Charlotte, who fell off the Ragin’ Mistress charter boat late Sunday. Bell was among 103 passengers and six crew members aboard the boat, said officials with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission in Raleigh said.

The commission leads investigations of deaths on the state’s waterways. The agency has released no other details, including whether anyone saw Bell fall off the boat or tried to rescue him, or whether the state has investigated any previous incidents with the boat.

The Ragin’ Mistress is one of five charter boats with a permit from the Lake Norman Marine Commission to operate on Lake Norman. The boat’s operator, Cornelius-based Luxury Yacht Charters, did not respond to requests for comment this week.

The general manager of the lake’s oldest charter boat company said Sunday’s drowning shouldn’t tarnish a growing industry on the lake that’s regulated to ensure passenger safety.

“I don’t think any accident is good for anybody in the business,” said Kevin Drum of Queens Landing in Mooresville. “But safety is always the No. 1 most important thing.”

The death was the second involving a charter boat in the lake’s 50 years, said Ron Shoultz, executive director of the marine commission, which established rules governing charters. The elected boards of commissioners of Iredell, Mecklenburg, Catawba and Lincoln counties appoint members of the marine commission.

Nate Coppick, 19, who worked at Westport Marina in Denver, was killed in an explosion on June 10, 2008, while refueling Championship Yacht Charters’ 80-foot Championship II boat. Suits against the marina owner and boat owner Cliff Champion were settled out of court.

In April, a Lincoln County jury took only 50 minutes to issue a $1.5 million judgment against a Denver company that supplied a fuel nozzle that caused the explosion at Westport Marina. Jurors told the Observer they were unanimous in agreeing that Petroleum Equipment and Service had knowingly put people in danger by installing a piece of equipment that the state said was illegal to use at marinas.

Marine commissioner Morris Sample of Lincoln County said he can recall no other problems with permitted charter boats. He represents the five-member commission on its charter boat committee, which makes sure the boats have the required insurance, proof of a successful annual inspection and a qualified captain aboard. Captains must hold a valid U.S. Coast Guard Master’s license.

Capt. Richard Permenter, marine commission chairman, said that requiring charter captains to obtain a U.S. Coast Guard Master’s license adds a higher level of safety. “One of the biggest things is the education on stability” of large boats that’s provided in the Master’s license course, Permenter said.

Besides Ragin’ Mistress, the charter boats with permits to operate on Lake Norman are No Mo Money, Yachta Yachta Yachta and the charters at Queens Landing – Catawba Queen and Lady at the Lake.

No Mo Money and Yachta Yachta Yachta are based at Peninsula Yacht Club in Cornelius and share a website. Capt. Brian Brady, whose voice mail answers for both charters, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Drum, of Queens Landing, serves on the marine commission’s charter boat committee. Catawba Queen and Lady of the Lake captains are also certified in CPR, first aid and using defibrillators, he said. They practice maneuvering the boats into coves they don’t normally travel, in case a passenger has a sudden health problem and the boat needs to get immediately to shore, he said.

“You never know what’s going to happen out there, but they need to be prepared for every circumstance,” he said.

Marusak: 704-987-3670; Twitter: @ jmarusak
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