The Flathead Valley’s Leading Independent Journal of Observation, Analysis, & Opinion

1 September 2009

Barkus crash may provide classic case study in nocturnal navigation

At first, the water route from Lakeside to Bigfork seems simple, a straight run of just over seven miles. A closer look at the map, however, reveals a more complex set of geographic features that can complicate navigation, especially at night. How Greg Barkus approached those complications on the night of 27 August, when he ran his speedboat into the rocks at Wayfarers State Park, injuring all on board, may well serve as a classic case study in the hazards of nocturnal navigation.

A presumption of innocence

I begin my discussion with this assumption: Barkus was stone cold sober while he was behind the wheel. Not just legally sober, but designated driver sober with a blood alcohol level of zero. It’s clear from news reports that at least one of his passengers, Rep. Dennis Rehberg, had shaken hands with Demon Rum earlier that evening — but there are no reports (yet) that Barkus had imbibed. Like everyone else, he’s entitled to the presumption of innocence — and on this website, we honor that presumption.

The fact that Barkus hired a personal injury attorney, Todd Glazier, may raise eyebrows, but the presumption of innocence remains. It’s true, of course, that Barkus may be in a heap of trouble. The investigation seems to be going slowly, with some reporters suggesting stonewalling by Flathead County Sheriff Mike Meehan. We’ll see. I’m content to wait an extra day — as long as all the facts come out; as long as nothing is sealed by the court as part of a deal.

The sun, the moon, and the sky that night

By the time Barkus began the return run to Bigfork, 2200 MDT according to most reports, the soft summer evening had given way to almost complete darkness. At Bigfork, the sun had slipped below the horizon at 2027 MDT, actually dropping behind the mountains a few minutes earlier. Civil twilight ended at 2059 MDT, nautical twilight ended at 2139, and astronomical twilight would end in 20 minutes, at 2022 MDT. As Barkus left the dock, the sun was 15 degrees below the horizon, bearing 303 degrees. Stars and planets were visible, and the waxing gibbous moon, now 57 percent illuminated, was low in the southwest, just under 10 degrees above the horizon bearing 209 degrees. (All of this information was obtained from the U.S. Naval Observatory’s online calculators, or the Multiyear Interactive Computer Almanac.)

At Glacier International Airport, the temperature was 60 degrees Fahrenheit, the wind calm, and visibility at least ten miles. Early news reports indicated similar conditions existed at the northern end of Flathead Lake, while later stories report that Barkus’ passengers were huddled down because of wind and cold. Cold is a subjective term, and there will be wind over the deck of a speeding boat, so both reports are compatible.

Why a Lakeside to Bigfork beeline is a bad idea

It’s doubtful that Barkus would have steered a beeline to Bigfork. It’s possible, I suppose, but a look at the map reveals why that’s not necessarily a good idea. A beeline takes you too close to the Flathead River’s delta and shallows, presenting a risk of grounding, not to mention entering the waterfowl production area or hitting logs or other objects that float down the river.

Therefore, it’s better to steer a few degrees to the south of the direct route to avoid the delta. In daylight, in clear weather, you can leave Lakeside on a heading of 73 degrees, aiming at Flathead Lake Lodge, until you’re past the waterfowl production area, a distance of five miles. At that point, you can either come left to a heading of approximately 55 degrees, which should take you to the mouth of the Swan River, or you can close the coast until you’re a few hundred yards offshore and able to follow the shoreline to Bigfork Bay. With experience, you can learn to do this safely without looking at a compass or a global positioning system receiver. I prefer closing the coast, making sure I'm south of Bigfork, then running along the shore until I reach Bigfork. This is known as an intentional deviation, and was used by Sir Francis Chichester during his Gypsy Moth flights in the Pacific.

At night, things are not so simple.

Steering for the darkest shore

The end of astronomical twilight was still 20 minutes away when Barkus pointed his boat northeast and advanced the throttle. As the U.S. Naval Observatory notes, “…for a considerable interval…before the end of evening [astronomical] twilight, sky illumination is so faint that it is practically imperceptible.” To the northwest, various objects would be faintly silhouetted against the residual light, but the lake’s eastern shore was much darker. Light from the moon may have provided some help, and there may have been a moon streak on the water that commanded the attention of some on board. Full dark adaptation of the human eye requires 20–30 minutes; longer if exposed to bright light while adapting.

If identified correctly, lights on shore — the dock lights at Wayfarers, or at Flathead Lake Lodge to the south — could have provided a heading that skirted the waterfowl production area. But at night, entering a route into a GPS device, and sticking to that route, all the while keeping a sharp watch for other boat traffic, etc., is the safest course of action. Judging distance over the water at night is difficult because a point of light can remain a point of light until you’re virtually upon it. A calm sea can make matters worse, as there is no white foam from waves breaking against the shore or docks.

What navigational decisions did Barkus make, and why did he make them?

At this point, we don’t know what navigational decisions Barkus made, or why he made them. Looking at photographs of his boat completely out of the water on the rocks at Wayfarers, and given the severity of the injuries suffered in the crash, I think it’s possible he was spatially disoriented, thought he was much farther from shore than he was, and wasn’t aware of his predicament until just before he hit the rocks. He might have used Wayfarers as a reference point, intending to follow the shore to Bigfork Bay once he neared the dock at Wayfarers.

There are other possibilities, of course. Perhaps Barkus hit something and lost control of the boat, but if that’s what happened, that raises its own questions about the degree of caution exercised. Perhaps he had a stroke or heart attack or seizure, or fell asleep. Perhaps he used a GPS, but entered the wrong values for his proximity warnings. The number of possible explanations is very large. But the number of probable explanations is very small.

One thing is certain, however. The more detailed the description of the sequence of events, the more extensive and thoughtful the discussion of the human factors that led to the crash, the more useful the final report will be to boaters and boating instructors.