PROVIDENCE — A lawyer for two insurance companies said Tuesday that Nathan Carman made unsafe alterations to his boat before setting off on a “fateful voyage” three years ago with his mother, then lied about where the boat sank after he was the sole survivor.
An oceanographic expert will testify that if Carman’s boat sank where he claims it did, then he would have drifted some 80 miles from the spot off Martha’s Vineyard where he was rescued in a life raft, David J. Farrell Jr. said during opening statements at a civil insurance trial in federal court.
Another witness, a hypothermia expert and doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital, will testify that Carman’s physical condition when he was found contradicts his claim that he was adrift for seven days, Farrell said.
“He would in no way be able to stand up on the life raft like he did here and wave a flag,” said Farrell, pointing to photographs of Carman’s rescue.
Carman, a Vermont man at the center of separate probes into the murder of his grandfather and disappearance of his mother at sea, has not been criminally charged. But after he filed an $85,000 claim for the loss of his 31-foot boat, the Chicken Pox, a pair of companies sued him for breach of contract.
Last week, Judge John J. McConnell Jr. denied a request by the insurance companies to introduce evidence that Carman allegedly sabotaged the boat to kill his mother and previously killed his grandfather as part of a scheme to collect a multimillion-dollar inheritance.
Carman, 25, of Vernon, Vt., was the last person to see his wealthy grandfather, John Chakalos, before he was found shot to death in his bed at his Windsor, Conn., home in December 2013. Police identified Carman as a suspect in the slaying, but he has never faced criminal charges in that slaying or the presumed death of his mother.
The civil trial is narrowly focused on whether Carman breached his insurance policy by failing to disclose he made faulty repairs to the boat and that he knew it was unseaworthy when he left Point Judith, R.I., on a fishing trip with his mother around midnight Sept. 18, 2016.
“The evidence will show the boat Mr. Carman bought was in great shape . . . it was seaworthy,” said Farrell, who represents the two insurers, the National Liability & Fire Insurance Co. and the Boat Owners Association of the United States.
But Carman made modifications to the vessel that made it unsafe, Farrell said. Just hours before he and his mother left Point Judith, Carman drilled holes into the boat to remove four trim tabs at the transom water line and filled them with putty, he said.
Carman, a tall, lanky man, sat expressionless during the proceedings, occasionally taking notes. Testimony focused on the mundane mechanics of boat refurbishing and repair — with references to trim tabs, bilge pumps, and bulkheads. There was no mention of Carman’s 54-year-old mother, Linda, who vanished at sea, along with the boat, and is presumed dead.
Carman is expected to testify in the trial.
Carman’s lawyer said his client had told the truth about the sinking of his boat and described him as “a young man with more money than experience,” who was unaware the boat was in poor condition when he bought it and wasn’t sure of his precise location when it sank.
“There were real problems with the Chicken Pox,” David F. Anderson said in his opening remarks. “It looked pretty good on the surface, but underneath it wasn’t really a great boat. That’s not something Mr. Carman knew. That’s not something the insurance company knew. But it’s a fact.”
But the man who sold Carman the boat for $48,000 in December 2015 said it was in good condition at that time. Brian Woods of Plymouth recalled that he was surprised when Carman arrived alone to pick it up and said he planned to set sail alone that day.
“I didn’t think it was very prudent for him to take the boat from Plymouth, Mass., to Point Judith, R.I., by himself in December,” Woods said.
Woods said he drove to the Cape Cod Canal to monitor Carman’s progress and saw him traveling at full speed, even though he had recommended he run the boat slower.
Nine months later, the boat sank. Carman told authorities it went down so quickly he was unable to save his mother or radio for help. He said it sank while they were fishing in an area off of Long Island known as Block Canyon.
Carman was alone in the raft when he was rescued Sept. 25, 2016, by a freighter, the Orient Lucky, about 110 miles off Martha’s Vineyard.
Farrell said an oceanographic expert will testify that based on drift currents, Carman would have been about 80 miles away.
But, Carman’s lawyer said Block Canyon “does not have a clearly defined boundary, it’s not like the city limits of Providence.” Carman wasn’t sure precisely where his boat sank because he didn’t have a fixed compass or classic paper chart, he said.
“There’s a lot of things that could have caused this vessel to sink and we’re not here to prove what did,” Anderson said.