Boat Party: Whose ‘Free-for-All’ Was It?

Carrie Ann Salvi

    Was he the organizer of this year’s Barcelona Point boat party or wasn’t he? That was the question of the day at East Hampton Town Justice Court on Tuesday in the trial of Charles Canavan, accused by the town of holding a mass gathering without a mass gathering permit.

    If found guilty in the nonjury trial in front of Justice Catherine A. Cahill, which ran about three hours, the penalty would be $2,000. Mr. Canavan chose to represent himself, explaining during a break that it would have cost more to hire an attorney than to simply go it alone, win or lose.

    The party, which draws about 200 vessels annually, took place for many years off Barcelona Point in East Hampton. It occurs on the first Sunday in August. The boats gather together, with many tying up in groups of floating vessels, all around a main boat or barge on which there is live music. Alcohol consumption is heavy, according to Ed Michels, chief harbormaster of East Hampton.

    “It’s a free-for-all,” he said of the chaos that typically ensues. Multiple jurisdictions of marine police, and even the Coast Guard, dedicate resources to, essentially, protect the partyers from themselves.

    In recent years, after East Hampton Town passed regulations in an attempt to control the party, it moved to Sag Harbor Cove. But this year, Sag Harbor Village also passed regulations to control the event, so the party again headed east, into Northwest Harbor.

    Whether Mr. Canavan was the one calling the shots, and thus liable for a $2,000 fine for violating the town code, was at the heart of the trial. The prosecuting attorney for the town was Joseph W. Prokop.

    The party needed a mass gathering permit from the town despite the fact that it was on the water because it was within 1,500 feet of the shoreline, according to the testimony of Mr. Michels and Dale Petruska, a town harbormaster. Mr. Petruska told the court that the party’s distance from the shore had been measured using laser technology.

    A “mass gathering” occurs when 50 or more people group together. Mr. Canavan argued at one point that the party did not fit the definition of a mass gathering. He used a hypothetical example in which Eric Clapton buys a bagel and goes to the park to eat it. There, he decides to play his guitar, and people start to gather around him.

    Justice Cahill agreed, saying that to qualify as a mass gathering, the event had to be planned.

    Mr. Canavan did not dispute that he had organized the event in 2011 and 2012, although he was unclear as to whether he was the organizer in 2010.

    Robert Bori, Sag Harbor’s harbormaster, gave testimony possibly tying Mr. Canavan to this year’s event. Mr. Bori had dealt directly with Mr. Canavan in planning the 2011 and 2012 events, he said. He said that Mr. Canavan had applied to the Coast Guard to regulate this year’s party.

    Mr. Canavan agreed that he had started an application, but said that he had never completed it.

    According to Mr. Michels, the application wasn’t completed because Mr. Canavan discovered that by going through the Coast Guard he would be required to provide much of the resources now provided by local governments.

    “Who pays for all this?” Justice Cahill asked Mr. Bori.

    “The taxpayers pay,” was his answer.

    “You testified that the defendant for the past three years stepped up and took responsibility for the event. Was there ever a permit applied for?” Justice Cahill asked Mr. Bori, who answered, “No.”

    “There was a lot of drinking,” said Jay Charron, an East Hampton harbormaster who was patrolling this year’s event on a Jet Ski. “People swam around on inflatables.” Many, he said, had parked their cars and swum out to the boats. Later, many of these partygoers tried to return to land.

    “As the afternoon wore on, because of the tide, people trying to get back to Barcelona couldn’t make it,” Mr. Charron said.

    In examining photos, Justice Cahill asked what kind of vessels people were using.

    “Whatever floats,” was Mr. Charron’s answer.

    “This year, I was not involved,” Mr. Canavan said in his testimony. “There is no proof that I was the organizer,” he concluded.

    Justice Cahill will make the final determination as to whose party it was in the next 30 days.