Death by Powerboat
Boaters who strike and kill kayakers go nearly unpunished
By Jeff Herman
Imagine a driver plowing into a child on a bicycle. Now imagine his lawyer arguing that because state law does not specifically list bicycles as street-legal transportation, the driver is not at fault. Can you imagine? The notion is so preposterous that it is almost comical.
Kayakers aren’t laughing. In 2011, while piloting his powerboat on Lake George, New York, Donald Peltier, 73, struck and killed kayaker Peter Snyder, 63. The facts are undisputed. The evidence is clear. Snyder drowned, a consequence of severe head and spinal injuries.
Peltier was charged with reckless operation. The grand jury reduced the charge to failure to yield the right of way, perhaps out of sympathy for Peltier’s efforts to save Snyder after the collision. In reducing the charge, however, the grand jury made a legal misstep that would allow Peltier to walk free.
New York State navigation law doesn’t recognize kayaks as “vessels.” In legal terms, Peltier wasn’t required to yield the right of way to a kayaker. Queensbury Town Justice Robert McNally dismissed the charge, rejecting prosecutor James Murphy III’s pleas to broadly interpret the meaning rather than the narrow wording of the navigation law. If Snyder had been aboard a small sailboat when Peltier plowed him over, the charge would have stuck.
It’s happening again. The power boater who struck and killed 10-year-old kayaker Gus Adamopoulos in Massachusetts may walk free after serving only a year of a five-year sentence for homicide by vessel. He originally faced a manslaughter rap.
The power boater, Steven Morse, admitted to drinking multiple beers during the day, although he passed breath tests administered after the 2010 accident. He told police he hadn’t consumed any other intoxicants. A witness testified he’d smoked marijuana with Morse prior to the fatal collision. Morse is out on bail while his appeal works its way through the courts.
There isn’t much the paddling community can do for the Adamopoulos or Snyder families. The sympathy of strangers will not bring their loved ones back. Neither outcome feels just. Are we simply at the mercy of power boaters? Apparently. It seems running over and killing kayakers only warrants a slap on the wrist. The onus is on paddlers to protect themselves. Paddle defensively and don’t assume anyone shares your efforts to boat responsibly.