Catilo v. Alexandria Crew Boosters & U.S. Rowing


On Friday, June 25, 2004, 21-year-old John Catilo was following and coaching a nine member rowing shell. John was not wearing a PFD at the time of the incident, and the boat was only equipped with a seat cushion. The boat was not equipped with an engine kill switch/safety lanyard at the time. The air temperature was 82 degrees F. and the water temperature was 70 degrees F. with light wind and good visibility.

The Starcraft runabout with a 15 hp engine was owned by T.C. Williams High School. It was built in 1987 and was 14’ long with a 5’ beam. The engine was manufactured in 1998 and included an engine kill switch and lanyard, but the engine kill switch and lanyard was kept in the head coach’s office.

At approximately 09:00 hrs., John stopped his boat by turning off the outboard engine in order to give instructions to the members of the rowing shell. While attempting to restart the engine, the boat lurched forward and he lost his balance and fell overboard. He struggled briefly by surfacing twice before he submerged. The boat continued to drift away from John because it was in gear when it was started and was not equipped with an engine kill switch/safety lanyard.

A witness had been kayaking on the river when he observed John’s distress. He paddled to the rowing shell and instructed the crew to row back to the club to get help. He then attempted to assist John, but John submerged before he was able to get to him.

On Sunday, June 27, 2004 at approximately 08:05 hrs., the deceased body of John was recovered by the Alexandria Fire Department in the area of Jones Point on the Potomac River.


The following information was researched by the Expert and was considered in the development of his expert opinions in this matter:

  • In the average boating accident the craft is 16 feet or less in length and not moving, and the victim usually falls out of or capsizes the boat
  • 89% of those killed in boating accidents would have survived if they had worn a PFD
  • 60% of all drownings are witnessed
  • Because of the possibility of ejection, boats should be equipped with a tether between the boat operator and the engine kill switch to stop the engine in case of an accident
  • All recreational boats must carry one wearable PFD for each person aboard.
  • Any boat 16’ and longer must also carry one throwable PFD
  • PFDs should not be stowed in plastic bags, in locked or closed compartments, or have other gear stowed on top of them
  • The PFD is the one you wear. Though not required, a PFD should be worn at all times when the vessel is underway
  • No person may use a recreational vessel unless at least one PFD (Type I, II, or III) is on board for each person
  • Racing shells, rowing sculls, racing canoes and racing kayaks are exempted from the requirements for carriage of any Type PFD
  • According to D.C. Municipal Regulations, “No owner, operator, or other person having charge or control of any vessel shall permit or cause that vessel to be underway in District of Columbia waters, unless the vessel has on board the requisite number and type of approved personal flotation devices for each person on board for that type of vessel
  • The United States Rowing Association is responsible for developing the sport of rowing. It currently has 14,000 individual members and 950 – 1000 clubs as organizational members.
  • Registered regatta programs agree to follow established guidelines provided in the US Rowing Safety Checklist
  • Prior to this incident, there was no safety information included on the US Rowing website
  • US Rowing states they are responsible for conducting research and studies and publishing its work t the rowing community
  • The US Rowing Safety Checklist contains no information about the need for coaches to wear PFDs
  • The US Rowing Safety Checklist contains no information about the need for coaches to use an engine kill switch in their safety launches
  • USRA Safety Bulletins and guidelines are meant to serve as an outline for the clubs’ safety programs
  • US Rowing offers three levels of education programs for coaches
  • US Rowing requires PFDs to be carried in safety launches for crew members – but doesn’t require them to be carried in the racing shells
  • US Rowing has a safety video that is over 20 years old
  • US Rowing is supposed to promulgate general rules and regulations for the sport of rowing and serve as the National Governing Body for the sport of rowing in the United States
  • US Rowing has a Safety Committee that “shall advise the Board and all other committees of the Association on matters related to the promotion of safety in the sport of rowing”. It is supposed to conduct such research and studies as it deems appropriate and shall publish its work to the rowing community from time to time. The Committee is supposed to promote and develop public awareness about all water safety matters, and develop education material and policies regarding safety that should be adopted as policies of the Association.
  • The US Rowing Safety Committee is a national group of representatives from the rowing community, comprised of coaches, club administrators, regatta directors, referees and rowers. The committee seeks to be a clearinghouse for safety concerns in the rowing community and a vehicle to share safety information between venues by posting rules of specific organizations on the USRowing website. The committee is also interested in gathering information on accidents which occur and seeks ways to make recommendations to minimize or eliminate those hazards.
  • The safety or coaching launch provides safety supervision when rowing and support assistance in an emergency. The driver must be trained in the proper use and operation of the powerboat. A radio or cell phone is recommended to allow a quick direct link with rescue services in the event of an emergency. Emergency supplies should include a first aid kit, fire extinguisher, night lights, and a tool kit. Ensure that the launch carries a flotation device for all onboard plus one for each person on the water.
  • The US Rowing Safety Poster advocates that all athletes view the USRowing safety video, “Ready, All Row”, at least once a year. Establish and discuss an “action plan” to be followed in the event of an emergency. All coaches and athletes should know what to expect and how to respond. Equip launches with Coast Guard approved personal flotation devices (PFDs). Have a complete safety kit in each launch. Equip launches with radios. The launch driver has the responsibility to ensure the safe operation of this power boat in compliance with local and federal laws.


The following were the Expert’s opinions that were developed after reviewing all the documentation and testimony developed in this case.

U.S. Rowing

  1. Failed to establish training criteria for organizational members to train and certify coaches
  2. Failed to establish Standard Operating Procedures to require the wearing of PFDs by coaching staff and safety launch operators while operating safety launches
  3. Failed to establish Standard Operating Procedures to require the use of Engine Kill Switches/Safety Lanyards by coaches and safety launch operators
  4. Failed to conduct a Threat Assessment to determine the risks and hazards associated with the sport for both rowers and coaching staff personnel.
  5. Failed to post appropriate safety information on their website and through their bulletins advising of the need for on-water coaching personnel to wear Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs).
  6. Failed to post appropriate safety information on their website and through their bulletins advising of the need for on-water coaching personnel to participate in a boating safety/operator course.
  7. Failed to update their 20-year-old Safety video that is recommended to be shown to all athletes annually.
  8. Failed to assess and update their safety practices, recommendations, and requirements regarding current laws pertaining to Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs).
  9. Failed to abide by their own constitution to research and publish findings on safety for the rowing community.

Alexandria Club Boosters

  1. Failed to establish appropriate criteria for coaching candidates
  2. Failed to require coaches to complete a Boating Safety/Operator course
  3. Failed to train coaches in water rescue procedures
  4. Failed to train coaches in safe boat operations
  5. Failed to provide a kill engine switch for use in the safety launch
  6. Failed to require the use of a kill engine switch in the safety launch
  7. Failed to require coaches to wear Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs)
  8. Failed to train/educate coaches on the use of PFDs
  9. Failed to require coaches to be certified through US Rowing
  10. Failed to establish Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) pertaining to the use of PFDs
  11. Failed to establish Emergency Response Plans or to conduct Man-Overboard Drills
  12. Used Personal Flotation Devices to pad and cushion boats when trailering
  13. Failed to provide a PFD to John Catilo
  14. Failed to develop and implement an SOP requiring the use of an Engine Kill Switch/Safety Lanyard
  15. Failed to adhere to USCG federal requirements to have a wearable PFD for each occupant of the Safety Chase Boat
  16. Failure to establish appropriate curriculum/training guidelines for new coaches
  17. Failed to conduct a Threat Assessment to determine the risks and hazards associated with the sport for both rowers and coaching staff personnel.
  18. Failed to install the engine kill switch and lanyard to the motor on John’s boat.
  19. Failed to adhere to The Potomac River Safety Committee’s rules and guidelines requiring 16’ V-hull safety launches, PFDs worn by all coaches on the water, PFDs in all safety launches, and “emergency cut-off lanyards” (engine kill switches and lanyards).
  20. On the day of John Steve Catilo’s death, none of the safety precautions required by Federal Law, District of Columbia Law, or the Safety Guidelines passed by the Potomac River Safety Committee and endorsed by the National Capital Area Scholastic Rowing Association were in place, implemented or followed.
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