A Very Ferry Christmas

New rules have forced the Washington State Ferry System – the nation’s largest – to reduce the number of passengers each vessel can convey.

Coast Guard vessel-stability rules that took effect nationwide Dec. 1 raised the estimated weight of the average adult passenger to 185 pounds from the previous 160 pounds, based on population information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In case you’re curious, 25 pounds is 15.6% of 160 (or 13.5% of 185). For an ‘average’ weight, it’s not an insignificant jump, adding up to about 250 people per boat – or subtracting, depending on how you look at it. In other words, this is not just a rounding error. So how were calculations so off?

During the past 20 years, there has been a dramatic increase in obesity in the United States and about one-third of American adults are now considered obese, the CDC says on its website.

Turns out the Coast Guard hired Rip Van Winkle to calculate vessel capacity.

That said, ferries in the United States seem to have been alright with the old capacity guidelines until now. And given their substantial heft, the weight of their human cargo is unlikely to make the difference between sink and swim – at least relative to other, more petite, methods of transportation. I hope whoever is responsible for elevator safety – not to mention the FAA – is paying better attention to average body weight trends than the Coast Guard.

The number of cars a ferry can schlep was not similarly reduced – even though they’re now probably all SUVs – because the real danger comes only when the boat experiences a dramatically uneven distribution of weight:

With [the new regulations], the ferry wouldn’t tip over even if everyone ran to the side at the same time to look at a pod of killer whales.

So yelling ‘Orca!’ on a crowded ferry is the new ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater.

I won’t even get into the part of the article that tries to relate ferry fare – hot dogs, beer, etc. – to expanding American waistlines. That’s because I can’t wait to share my favorite part of the article, a quote from 40-year ferry regular Carol Johnston:

News reports of overloaded ferries sinking in other parts of the world are sometimes a topic of discussion, she said.

“I think it’s cool the Coast Guard is keeping up on that,” she said.

What? No they’re not! They didn’t bother to update the regulations for twenty years, and let the average weight shift 15.6/13.5% in the meanwhile!

It’s like you didn’t even read the article, Carol.


Yes, I wrote on this topic primarily for the title pun. No, it has no deeper meaning than ‘I wrote about ferries on Christmas’. But please note that I refrained from making any Christmas puns about Carol.


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