Some Canadian boaters are calling for a speed limit on the Lower Niagara River in the wake of a hydrofoil accident Saturday that sank one sailboat off the Youngstown shore and damaged three others.
Speeding boats on that part of the river have long been a problem, they say. In recent years, with the proliferation of hydrofoils, jet boats and other commercial vessels, the problem has only grown worse.
"We need an enforced speed limit on this river," said Margie Andres, a Canadian boater. "The Americans are the ones that took the hit last night, but it's only a matter of time before they do damage to our side. That sailboat that sunk could have had people on it."
On Saturday, the hydrofoil Sea Flight I, which is owned by Hydrofoil Lake Jet Lines of Toronto, was en route to Queenston to pick up more than 100 passengers to take them to Toronto when its steering failed.
As the Sea Flight passed the Youngstown Yacht Club, it veered left, went out of control and struck four sailboats, each about 30 feet long, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. One boat was torn in half and sank immediately; two were shifted from their moorings; and a fourth completely broke from its mooring, according to Petty Officer Ben Bogacz.
The crew members and nine passengers on the hydrofoil were not injured. No one was on any of the sailboats, including the one that sank.
"If there was a baby on that boat yesterday, where would that baby be today?" said K.R. Davidson, deputy chief of the Niagara Regional Police.
Sea Flight I was temporarily banned by the Coast Guard from U.S. waterways until its steering problem was fixed. By Sunday afternoon, it was repaired and again carrying passengers between Toronto and Queenston, according to Angela Conway, general manager of Hydrofoil Lake Jet Lines Inc.
Most Canadian inland waterways have a speed limit equivalent to about 6 mph. There is no speed limit on the Lower Niagara River. Ms. Conway said she did not know how fast the hydrofoil was going on Saturday, but law enforcement authorities estimated the hydrofoils travel about 30 mph in that area.
"The fastest boats on the river are hydrofoil boats," said a U.S. Coast Guard spokesman.
Canadian boaters say the hydrofoils and other commercial boats move too fast in an area densely populated by boaters. Some members of the Smuggler's Cove Boat Club in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., across the river from Youngstown, say they and their families often sleep overnight on their boats and in the club, which is anchored in the river.
Now, they don't feel very safe.
"We're concerned it might be our club they hit next time if they lose control," Ms. Andres said.
"I guess it's come to a head," said Donald Ashdown, another Canadian boater. "Conditions in the river are getting progressively worse."
Authorities on both sides of the border point to the river's status as an international border as a stumbling block to setting a speed limit. It would require a cooperative effort between the United States and Canada.
"There's no legislation on either side of the border controlling the speed," Davidson said. "Police are handcuffed, really, because we don't have a speed limit."
"Because it's international waters, nothing's ever been done," Ms. Andres said.
Hydrofoil Lake Jet Lines -- "the fast, fun way to travel between Toronto and Niagara," according to its slogan -- has been running two hydrofoils daily since June. Each vessel carries up to 138 passengers on the 65-minute trip each way.
Saturday's incident marked the first problem of that nature for Hydrofoil Lake Jet Lines, according to Ms. Conway.
"There's no controls," Davidson said. "Free enterprise goes for the profit margin, and speed makes money."
Spokesmen for the U.S. Coast Guard, which is continuing to investigate Saturday's incident, pointed to the hydrofoil's steering problems as the cause of the accident, not excessive speed. The Canadian boaters disagree.
"If he would have been coming down at a lower speed, he wouldn't have created the damage he did," said Dennis Lloyd, commodore of the Smuggler's Cove Boat Club.
Lloyd said he plans to meet with other boat club commodores and politicians from both countries this week.
"We would like to see a speed limit put in and enforced," he said.
The owner of Shaker Cruise Lines, another Toronto company operating hydrofoils from Toronto, however, has a different view. A speed limit isn't the answer, he said. A designated shipping lane is.
"The absence of commercial traffic has created the illusion to these boaters they own the water," said Ihab Shaker. "They do, of course, have the right to enjoy their summers. They have to learn to co-exist and live with the high-speed craft.
"I'd like to restore commerce on the Great Lakes to what it was one day. The Great Lakes have a lot of history with ships and boats."