Moving Violation: Capturing a Speedboat Crash – Photo of the Year

In Sketchbook by Chris FoleyLeave a Comment


Well, this was a first for me.

I was photographing pelicans, fishermen, and tourists (in that order) on the Fourth of July weekend in Santa Barbara, when I stumbled upon a boat crash about to happen, caught the entire incident as it unfolded, and became an unwitting witness in the ensuing criminal case between the Santa Barbara Harbor Patrol and the jackass incredibly irresponsible boat captain. Luckily a deposition and the 85 photos I shot at the scene were enough to strengthen the Harbor Patrol’s case and they left me pretty much alone after that. 

Right place, right time?

I guess. I happened to be standing on the pedestrian walkway on Stearn’s Wharf with my camera in hand when I caught sight of this speedboat cruising at high speed in a no-wake zone. I thought it was going to crash into the pier when the boat banked, executed a perfect 360º turn and sped off out of site. My first thought was “stupid fucking tourist!” I couldn’t imagine that a local boat captain would pilot his boat in such a dangerous manner within feet from the pier and assumed it had to be some tourist in a rented speedboat. You see that sort of joyriding out past the buoy line but never within such close proximity to the pier, people on kayaks, paddle boarders, etc. 

And then the boat returned, engines revved, passengers laughing the excited laugh generally reserved for rollercoasters and other controlled amusement park rides. The pilot didn’t execute the perfect 360º turn this time and was forced to enter the narrow corridor in between two docks, a space called the “wye”. My camera was up and on before I could even think about it. I was angry and astonished and I just barely had the presence of mind to stop down my aperture to ensure wide focus and just kept with the boat and pressed the shutter over and over again. 

They came into the wye at such speed (you can see from the height of the boat’s wake) that the pilot blew his second turn as well, crashing into the Wharf, and hurling three passengers overboard. Thankfully nobody was hurt, excepting a fair bit of emotional trauma to one of the passengers. 

The crash damaged one of the pilings (a wooden column wider around than a telephone pole), and caused a fair amount of damage to the boat itself. 

I stuck around to connect with the Harbor Patrol and arrange to give them my images and a statement. I also sent the images to my friend Bill at Noozhawk, Santa Barbara’s online newspaper. Within 24 hours I found myself inundated with a whole lot of unwanted attention. No fewer than 8 regional news stations sought permission to use my images in their story (sure, go ahead) and even Fox News reached out to clear rights (which I declined — they didn’t want to pay me and instead talked about all of the great exposure I’d gain from their story. Yeah? No thanks.)

I was contacted by the boat captain’s business partner who was furious about the damage to the boat, and who felt that his buddy’s recollection about what had happened might have smelled a bit fishy. 

I was even contacted a bit later by the poor woman in the red pants who told me that she’d seen a few of my images on the news and wanted to see the rest of them to help see the scene from a point of view that was different than the one that she had in her head; which is to say the image of a dock coming at her full speed and then suddenly being under water. She was seeking some sort of closure. 

I don’t know how the case ended. If you’re interested you can read more about the case HERE.

And there’s even video of the crash here, which I only became aware of as I was writing this post:

The experience shook me up quite a bit, and I stopped blogging when it happened. I didn’t blog again for 7 months after this, preferring instead to just lay low. One upside is that my images may have helped comfort this one woman who was thrown from the boat. Another upside is that the images became a central asset in the Harbor Patrol’s case against the captain. 

As a local business owner I hate the thought of another local business owner losing his or her ability to make a living, but the more I think about it the more I realize that if I were to witness a taxi driver or a bus driver behaving recklessly or driving to endanger, I would demand an investigation take place and I would petition to ensure that driver’s license was revoked or restricted. I don’t have a whole lot of patience for people who risk my safety without my consent. 

Moral of the story: 

Be safe. Don’t be an asshole. Always have a camera with you. 

Below are 45 of the images I took, in sequence. I’ve removed 40 of them out of simple redundancy.  


Click on any image to open the gallery up into a Lightbox.


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