PROVIDENCE — A marine surveyor testified Wednesday that Nathan Carman made his boat unseaworthy through a number of dangerous modifications before it sank during a fishing trip with his mother, who has not been seen since and is presumed dead.
When Carman bought the 31-foot Chicken Pox in December 2015, it was “in good serviceable condition and that means pretty much turnkey,” said Bernard Feeney, who inspected the boat before the sale and watched it perform a sea trial.
But Carman made unusual alterations, including drilling four holes slightly above the water line at the back of the boat and filling them with putty, that compromised the boat’s integrity, creating a certainty that it was “going to be in peril sometime,” Feeney testified.
Feeney took the stand during the second day of a federal civil trial over Carman’s $85,000 insurance claim for the accidental loss of his boat. In response, two insurers — the National Liability & Fire Insurance Co. and Boat Owners Association of the United States — sued Carman for breaching the terms of his insurance policy by allegedly making suspicious modifications that caused the boat to sink.
In court filings, they allege Carman sabotaged the boat to kill his mother and killed his grandfather in 2013 as part of a scheme to collect a multimillion-dollar inheritance. But US District Judge John J. McConnell Jr., who is presiding over the bench trial, denied the insurers’ request to present evidence about the murder of Carman’s wealthy grandfather, John Chakalos, who was shot to death in his Windsor, Conn., home in December 2013.
Police identified Carman as a suspect, but he has never been criminally charged in that death or the presumed death of his mother. Carman’s aunts believe he was responsible for both deaths.
The judge limited the scope of the trial to whether Carman made faulty repairs to the boat and knew it was unseaworthy when he left Point Judith, R.I., on a fishing trip with his mother around midnight Sept. 18, 2016.
Seven days later, he was rescued alone in a life raft by a passing freighter, about 110 miles off Martha’s Vineyard. He told authorities his boat sank so quickly he was unable to save his mother or radio for help.
On Tuesday, a lawyer for the insurers said that an expert will testify that if Carman’s boat sank where he claims it did, he would have drifted some 80 miles from where he was rescued.
On Wednesday, Feeney testified that the boat was likely taking on water while Carman was fishing because he had replaced the bilge pump and drilled four holes in the back of the boat to remove the trim tabs shortly before the trip.
The trim tabs, which the previous owner had installed to increase the boat’s performance and efficiency, should have been professionally repaired, Feeney said.
“Having four holes in the back of a boat is just lending itself to taking water on,” Feeney said. “So my opinion is the boat was taking on some water.”
Feeney said it is unknown whether the newly installed bilge pump was working properly to discharge water from the boat.
Feeney said Carman also damaged the boat’s structural integrity by removing two forward bulkheads shortly after he bought it. Carman said he did it to create space to store fishing rods, according to court filings.
But Feeney said it would have left the boat in “poor condition.” If he had known about the changes, he would have advised Carman “not to launch the boat” until it was inspected and repaired, he said. The bulkheads would have created an air pocket to protect the bilge pump if the boat took on water, he said.
“If the boat was flooded, that area no longer had an air pocket, so it would flood the entire bilge pump area,” Feeney said.
Under cross-examination by Carman’s lawyer, David Anderson, Feeney acknowledged that the boat was more than 40 years old, had undergone many modifications as a lobster boat and then as a racer, and had various bulkheads removed and reinstalled over time.
The judge asked Feeney a pointed question: Did Carman’s repairs make the boat unseaworthy?
“The holes in the boat and the poor repair made it unseaworthy,” Feeney said.