As Regulation Lags, Texas Flats Boat Casualties Mount

One moment Danny Twardowski is guiding the prow of the boat to the right through the waters of Laguna Madre near Corpus Christi the morning of June 21, 2014, on his way to another fishing spot with his two sons. The next, the bug-juice-green vessel seems to have a mind of its own as it begins to shift about beneath his feet.

The gracefully curved bow of Spooled You, a 23-foot-long 2012 Dargel Explorer tunnel vee, noses the water while the stern lifts up. Danny’s oldest son, Todd, the owner of the boat, grabs a rail with one hand and his father’s shirt with the other to keep them both from going overboard. Danny is wearing a kill switch but since he doesn’t fall out, it doesn’t activate and the engine rumbles on.

Sitting on a bench closer to the bow, 17-year-old Tyler feels the boat spinning beneath him, swapping ends — an action like that of a car fishtailing on a slick street. He scrambles for something to hold onto, but the bench is smooth and there’s no handle or rail nearby. As he’s about to fly out of the boat, Tyler heaves himself as far away as he can. He’s still too close.

Tyler sees the boat’s back end pivoting toward him and flings his arms up to try to protect himself from the hull and the whirring propellers. He screams as they slice into his outstretched arms.

Todd dives in and lifts Tyler up, and Danny hoists his 200-pound son into the boat as if he were still a small child. Todd begins driving toward the marina dock, while Danny holds Tyler’s wrists, pinching hard to stanch the blood. He hollers to a passing boater to call 911.

Tyler is missing most of his right hand, and the fingers on his left hand have been slashed open and raw. Newly unattached bits of tendon and muscle flap in the wind.

“Am I going to die?” Tyler asks repeatedly. Danny says no. When Tyler mutters about the pain, Danny grabs a bottle of water and dumps it on Tyler’s mangled flesh. The raw nerves scream, a feeling of ice cold and searing heat where his fingers used to be. “Don’t ever do that again, okay?” Tyler tells his dad in a level voice. “Okay,” Danny says.

Tyler and Danny step off the boat onto the dock together. “Am I going to die?” Tyler asks again as he climbs into the waiting ambulance. A medic injects Tyler with pain medication and persuades Danny to let go of Tyler’s wrists.

Tyler is in so much pain he barely knows what’s happening. Blood is streaming out of deep lacerations on his head, face and neck — an inch higher, his head would have been bashed in. An inch lower, his jugular would have been cut and he’d have bled out before they got to the dock. His hands took the brunt of the damage.

At first the emergency room doctors at the Corpus Christi hospital say they’ll have to amputate both of Tyler’s hands, but a plastic surgeon takes the case and after more than eight hours of surgery, he saves most of Tyler’s left hand. On the right hand there’s only the stub of his pointer finger and a mound where his thumb used to be.

Waiting for Tyler to come out of surgery, Danny pulls his wife, Linda, into the hallway. “This wasn’t my fault,” he tells her. “I swear.” She nods and hugs him. There was no alcohol on the boat, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife accident report, and Danny had more than 500 hours of boat operation experience. “It just spun out of control,” he says now.

Texas flats boats, also known as tunnel vee boats, are popular for fishing along the Texas Gulf Coast because they can move in as little as six inches of water, while the tunnel vee shape in the hull allows the vessels to move quickly. But in recent years, Texas Parks and Wildlife boating law administrator Cody Jones says, the state agency has had growing concerns about these boats. “Operators tend to blame themselves, to assume they were driving too fast or were doing something wrong, but that’s not what’s been going on here,” Jones says.

In fact, the boats have a design flaw, according to a study commissioned by the U.S. Coast Guard in 2013, that makes them abruptly turn 180 degrees with little to no warning before the reversal.

In the days that followed the accident, Tyler was in and out of surgery and lay in a hospital bed in between operations. “I was going over it all in my head. What if I hadn’t woken up early to go on the boat, what if I hadn’t sat in that front seat, what if I had jumped the other way?” Tyler says now. “When I realized it wasn’t me, it was the boat, that was hard. It shouldn’t have happened.”

Cleve Ford, owner of Dargel Boats Inc., disagrees, saying the boat design isn’t the problem. “Since this company has been in existence starting in 1937, we have never had this issue arise, and we build a lot of boats. So there’s got to be something different about this one specific incident,” Ford says, noting he can’t talk more specifically about the case because of pending litigation.

The Twardowski family contacted Bob Wynne, a Houston lawyer, and filed a lawsuit in Harris County District Court against the boat maker, Dargel Boats, Inc.; P3 Aquatics, Inc.; Waypoint Marine; and Yamaha Motor Corporation, USA. (The initial lawsuit, filed in 2015, also named H&M Marine, Inc., but that party has since been dropped.) The flats boat is defectively designed and unreasonably dangerous, the Twardowskis maintain.

Laddie Livingston, a Houston lawyer representing Waypoint Marine and P3 Aquatics, the dealership that sold Todd the boat, told the Houston Press he has directed his clients not to comment on pending litigation. Jeff Hawkins, a San Antonio lawyer representing Yamaha, the maker of the outboard motor on the boat, says the company doesn’t comment on pending litigation. All of the parties responded to the lawsuit with general denials of responsibility.

However, despite what Cleve Ford says, critics say there have been numerous issues involving various makes and models of tunnel vee boats. They insist the real issue is the Texas flats boat design, not the people running the boats.

The U.S. Coast Guard, charged with dealing with problematic boat designs, oversees safety regulations but maintains that builders are responsible for making safe boats, as noted in a Coast Guard boating safety circular issued earlier this year. This approach has led to an industry in which, for the most part, the manufacturers supervise themselves.

“The Coast Guard won’t regulate the issues on these boats, but these boats don’t come with warnings,” Wynne says. “This just leaves people to their fates, and after something happens it’s up to the courts to solve it. No one else will step in.”

Growing up in Waller, Tyler played sports and studied piano, but he’s been fishing since he could walk. Over the years, the Twardowskis spent countless hours on the water together. Danny, the superintendent of Waller ISD, and Linda, a dental hygienist, raised their kids to hunt and fish.

Todd, Tyler’s older brother by about 12 years, sells high school graduation caps, gowns and rings in Corpus Christi. He saved for years to buy the boat designed to move easily through the shallow waters along the Texas Gulf Coast. He chose the model, designed the layout of the storage chests and had the hull painted lime green, dubbing the vessel Spooled You. “This boat was my dream,” he says.

Danny had heard that tunnel vee boats could swap ends, but Todd checked with the dealer when he placed his order, and was told that was an issue only on smaller crafts. (Jared Poole, one of the owners of Waypoint Marine, says he can’t comment on pending litigation.)

When the boat arrived, in November 2012, Todd took the family out on Corpus Christi Bay, even though it was freezing outside. Soon, going out on the boat became part of the family’s routine. Danny or Todd would sit at the console and drive while Tyler sat on the bench stationed directly in front of the console.

There’s a photo of Tyler, a year before the accident, grinning and holding an enormous fish. Todd ribbed him about throwing it back, and their mom, Linda, snapped photos and texted them to Danny. Tyler had the fish stuffed, and it hangs on the wall in his bedroom today. Before June 2014, they spent hours on the boat, tooling through the shallow water near Corpus Christi, and there was never a hint of trouble.

The Twardowskis were never bothered by the fact that these boats don’t have seatbelts and the rail is a lip of metal on the edge of the boat. Or that if you aren’t seated or standing by the console, there’s not much to grab onto. It never occurred to anyone that this could be a problem, Todd says now. “The boat was just a boat. Harmless.”

But Steve Hicks, a marine master technician with Meeks Marine in Kemah, says the flats hulls are known in the industry for sliding on the water and going into spins. “It’s hard to say it’s a problem, because some people like these boats because they slide like this, but if you’re not prepared for that, it can surprise you and throw you out of the boat,” Hicks says.

Despite this characteristic, there’s very little that can be done to force manufacturers either to warn consumers or to make the vessels themselves safer, Jones says.

That’s partly because the whole concept of regulating recreational boating is so new. The recreational boating industry developed late, compared to the car and airplane industries, just after World War II, and grew so rapidly that regulations couldn’t keep up. Until President Richard Nixon signed the Federal Boat Safety Act of 1971, there was nothing on the books about federal regulation. Since then the Coast Guard has overseen manufacturing and safety regulations.

However, the federal legislation gives the Coast Guard the ability to provide “minimal” safety regulations on boat construction, so any recreational boating regulation must be created in response to demonstrated need. Then, the proposed regulation must be backed up by statistics proving a nationwide issue and approved by the National Boating Safety Advisory Council. Basic concepts, such as requiring children to wear life jackets, have been authorized, but more complicated issues, like whether all boats should be required to have propeller guards, were ultimately scrapped.

The Coast Guard is also stretched too thin to be more of a presence in the recreational boat industry. From 2010 to 2015, budget cuts sliced about 25 percent off the federal agency’s annual funding. In a November 2014 report, Coast Guard officials told the federal Government Accountability Office that they were regulating only certain aspects of the recreational boat industry because they were shorthanded. Manufacturers are left to police themselves. They are supposed to go by the Coast Guard’s Boatbuilder’s Handbook in designing their vessels, but they also certify themselves without much oversight from the Coast Guard.

At the same time, the states cannot create any safety regulations more strict than what the Coast Guard has on its books, and they are prohibited from enacting any rules about manufacturing, because those regulations would cross state lines.

“The Coast Guard’s authority is limited, but any time the state of Texas has tried to make changes, the Coast Guard always pushes back,” Jones explains. “They don’t want the state of Texas to step in. So we’re stuck looking at issues we can’t do anything about.”

This lack of stringent regulations — you don’t even need a license to operate a boat — can be a problem.“There is some knowledge and skill that needs to come with boating. People don’t always realize what they need to know or what they don’t know,” Rachel Johnson, executive director of the National Safe Boating Council, an entity focused on boater education, says. “Since there are few laws, especially on the federal level, there’s not much to constrain a boater.”

But Ford says the recreational boating industry already labors under substantial regulations from the Coast Guard. “There have been a few cases that people have really focused on, but there are terrible stories about all kinds of boats. It goes back to usually there is a separate issue, other than just the boat at fault.”

In May 2012, 16-year-old Kali Gorzell was perched on the bow of a family friend’s boat near Rockport when the operator lost control. The boat whirled on the spot and the force tossed the San Antonio teenager into the water. There was a sharp thud as the propellers hit her. The driver, Robert Copeland, dove off the boat and pulled Kali from the water, but she never regained consciousness.

As Copeland motored to shore, some local fishing guides saw Kali’s body on the deck and started shouting, saying somebody should do something, that everybody knew these boats could be dangerous.

In the aftermath of Kali’s death, Copeland told her father, James Gorzell, about the fishermen’s comments. Gorzell went online and appealed to people for information about any similar incidents involving Texas flats boats. He got a flood of similiar stories about tunnel vee boats abruptly swapping ends the same way. “I was shocked. I’ve been on boats for years and had never heard of this. Robert is a trusted friend and a lifelong boater; otherwise Kali wouldn’t have been allowed to go, but he had no idea either,” Gorzell says now.

Gorzell went to the state. At Texas Parks and Wildlife, Jones suggested he file a consumer safety defect report to get the Coast Guard’s attention. It did. In a first-of-its-kind action, the Coast Guard took the Gorzell boat and contracted CED Technologies, Inc., to conduct tests on it and another, similar vessel in 2013.

Jones went to Maryland to observe the testing. Each vessel was equipped with remote controls so the engineers could conduct the tests without having to be on the boat. The engineers put the boats through their paces, running them over the water in ten-minute stretches, recording how each vessel handled hard turns at up to 25 mph — routine maneuvers for most craft, according to the CED Technologies report. When the speed increased, the boats tended to slip a little, losing traction. Once the engineers added 160 pounds of weight on the bow, the vessels began to skid over the water.

Jones watched, transfixed, as the Gorzell boat skittered on the water’s surface and then careened into a sloppy pirouette. The bow dipped below the water while the stern briefly became airborne, the propeller blades spinning furiously as the back end slammed down.

The movement looked almost graceful on the water, but instruments placed on the craft recorded g-forces that would tug people toward the center of the boat before slamming into them, and throwing them out unless they could find something to hold onto.

CED Technologies’ conclusions, submitted in November 2013, are blunt. The center of gravity on these boats is farther forward than in most hull designs, so when weight is placed on the bow, by passengers or gear, the crafts become increasingly likely to launch into unexpected tight turns, the report observes. Considering how quickly the boats lurched out of control, the severity of the spins, the lack of handles or railings, and the low height of the gunnel, the boats are too dangerous to be on the water without serious alterations and warnings posted on the vessels, according to the report. “It would be difficult to envision how either of the two hull forms could be safely used for recreational boating,” the report states. “In its present form, the two hulls tested by CED were unsafe.”

William Daley, a mechanical engineer with CED Technologies, notes the company found that the boats would swap ends even though the engineers weren’t pushing the vessels to their limits. “That was the most alarming part of that testing,” he says in a video explaining the findings. “That an operator, even acting conservatively, could still lose control of that boat.”

But the Coast Guard disagreed. In a report issued in November 2014, the Coast Guard found CED’s findings didn’t measure up to the standards required to justify a change in safety regulations. The Coast Guard report argued the vessels simply should not be doing hard turns at 25 mph or faster.

A review of ten years of national boating accident data found the Texas flats hull design was involved in 124 accidents out of more than 48,000 accidents reported. This indicates, according to the Coast Guard, that the flats hull design “does not have an extraordinary accident history that would make it a higher risk than any other boat hull design.”

Since then the Coast Guard has issued two boating safety circulars, sent out to more than 2,000 boat manufacturers across the country, discussing the concerns with Texas flats boats and its conclusions, and announcing boat makers may voluntarily place warning stickers on their boats. The Coast Guard also advised that placing a stabilizing fin on the back of boats can help keep them from spinning.

Lisa Novak, a spokeswoman for the Coast Guard, says this is enough of a warning. “The operators of such boats are encouraged to learn how to properly use their boat and to not attempt to make excessively fast turns,” Novak says.

But Jones says the only reason national statistics don’t reflect an issue with flats boats is that many of the swapping-ends incidents are probably not reported or are not attributed to a hull design issue. In Texas, reporting an accident is required only if there’s more than $2,000 in damage, a significant injury or a death — sometimes even the deaths don’t get reported to the state — so when someone loses control of a vessel but nothing else goes wrong, the incident can easily go unreported, Jones says.

“Everyone was assuming they’d been the ones who messed up. Until we started putting it together, we had no idea it was possibly more than operator error,” Jones says. “Now we’re looking to reform our accident reporting system as far as how we capture the data, the hull design, so an issue like this one won’t slip through the cracks.”

Still, as long as the Coast Guard data collection methods stay the same, the overall numbers won’t change, Jones admits.

On Memorial Day Weekend in 2014, Sabine County game warden Henry Alvarado was at Sam Rayburn Reservoir with his partner aboard a state patrol boat, a 17-foot-long Explorer KS tunnel vee, when they hit a wave. In an instant the boat careened out of control and whirled sharply on the spot. Alvarado tumbled into the water and his left thigh was sliced open by a propeller.

In the ensuing investigation, it was found that the boat was equipped with an engine that exceeded the U.S. Coast Guard maximum horsepower rating, according to TPWD, but that didn’t entirely explain the incident. Investigators found the boat had a history of fishtailing on the water.

A game warden in Harris County operated the vessel from 1999 to 2012, and told investigators she’d once been slung out of the boat when the person driving it turned suddenly. She didn’t report the incident because she found the boat was generally not hard to handle “when operated with due diligence,” according to the report.

However, a game warden in Orange County, which later used the boat, refused to use the boat again after he was almost thrown out of it twice. Documentation shows each time the boat changed hands, it was accompanied with a clear warning about its dangerous past. Sabine County game wardens received the same caution.

State investigators went to Ford, the current owner of Dargel Boats Inc. Ford blamed the problems on the previous owners of Explorer boats — Ford bought the rights to Explorer hull designs in 2009. At the same time Ford admitted he destroyed the mold of the vessel the state was investigating because he’d heard of problems with it sliding and swapping ends, though he maintains that was a one-time issue with the specific model.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s flats boats — two of them — were subsequently removed from the patrol fleet.

In March 2015, then-12-year-old Michael Dominguez, of San Antonio, was tossed out of a flats boat when his father made a sharp turn, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife accident report. Propeller blades snagged the boy’s shorts and cut deep gashes on the back of his left thigh. He required skin grafts.

In October 2015, Janis Lindeman, 57, of Blanco, was killed when her husband began to turn the craft they were on and it lost traction, doing a complete circle on the water. Lindeman fell overboard and was struck by the propeller.

Jones reviews every boating accident in Texas. Each time there is an incident on a flats boat, Jones emails the report to the Coast Guard. “I think it’s imperative they know these accidents are continuing to happen,” he says. “Some accidents are just tragedies, but in this case something can be done to prevent this from happening, and it’s frustrating that nothing is really happening.”

Meanwhile, the state has been looking to develop small regulations that will help protect the public without being more strict than federal rules. Any change is complicated. Propeller guards are controversial and have been fiercely debated in the recreational boating community, partly because there hasn’t been any testing to figure out what putting a guard on the propeller does to a boat.

Right now, the focus is on kill switches. In the upcoming legislative session, state Representative Lyle Larson, a Republican from San Antonio, is planning to file a bill in January, when the 85th Texas Legislature convenes, proposing a rule requiring people to wear the switches while operating boats. The bill won’t affect any hull design issues, which is under the Coast Guard’s purview, Larson acknowledges, but it may help stop boats from running over people once they’ve been ejected from the vessels.

About 85 percent of the boats manufactured today have such switches, which automatically turn off a boat when the line tethered to the switch is pulled. The state can require people to wear them while operating boats. “It’s not a complete fix, but it will slow the boat down a lot, and that could make the difference between life and death for some people,” Jones says.

“The state is going to focus on what we can do,” Larson says. “Since you don’t know when that moment will happen when a boat swaps ends or something else goes wrong, wearing that switch could be the difference between life and death for some people; it could save lives.”

Gorzell is still pushing for warning labels on Texas flats boats, but he says the kill switch bill will be better than nothing. “When you get thrown out, there’s nothing to stop the boat,” Gorzell says. “If the kill switch had been on, maybe the boat wouldn’t have killed Kali. Maybe it would have stopped in time.”

If it passes, the bill will be called “Kali’s Law.”

Ford doubts any of these measures will be effective. He says the burden of responsibility should remain on the boat operator. “We’ve become a society that’s dependent on having a warning for everything, including having a hot cup of coffee labeled ‘hot,’ but even if there’s a warning, would it make a difference? You should know the limitations of your vehicle and be aware that you don’t just get out there the very first day and do everything possible. You have to learn with time.”

After Tyler was injured, his hands were in bandages for a year and a half while he was in and out of surgery. He couldn’t eat, drink, dress himself, go to the bathroom or text. He still has scars on his head, face and neck from the propeller blades. While his left hand has been patched together through numerous surgeries and skin grafts, his right is only a long, knobby finger and the built-up stub of a thumb.

At first he compulsively tried to hide his injuries, putting his hands in his pockets and keeping his face tilted at an angle where the scars don’t show. But in physical therapy, one of the physician’s assistants was a woman missing an arm. She came in and joked about it, and didn’t wear a prosthetic or act ashamed of her missing limb. Tyler decided to take her approach.

Todd hasn’t been out on the boat since the accident. Spooled You has been in storage for more than two years. “It’s rotting right now. I can’t even stand to look at it,” he says. Once the lawsuit is resolved, Todd intends to sell it, although he wants to equip the vessel with more seating and railings, and won’t sell the boat without giving the buyer a clear warning about its issues.
Since the accident, Linda and Danny have been focused on getting Tyler through this. He is a sophomore at Baylor University now and is studying to become a physical therapist or maybe a doctor so he can help people the way doctors and therapists helped him. The smallest things, like putting on his clothes by himself, have become victories.

He’s got a sense of humor about his hands. When he gives potential students campus tours, someone will inevitably ask what happened. “Well, all I can say is petting zoos are cool but watch out for those llamas,” he’ll answer, or he’ll say he wrestled a bear and lost, enjoying the horrified, credulous faces.

He’s training right now, intent on going out for the Baylor football team next spring.

Danny grins hard when he talks about Tyler’s plans to go out for the football team, before admitting it will be hard not to worry about what playing college ball could do to Tyler’s hands.

In the first months after the accident, it hurt Danny even to look at Tyler’s hands. Every night after Danny and Linda turn off the lights, he still finds himself reviewing to see if there was some way it could have turned out differently.

But Tyler won’t allow himself to question whether anything is impossible for him. He’s learned how to drive, to text, to fish again. He’s certain he can learn this.
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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray