Button strikes blamed for crippling Ava Pearl

‘Red mushroom heads’ meant to stop engines in an emergency hit by ‘loose material’ in wheelhouse.

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Captain Paul Bangs talks on the radio as he steers the tugboat Sirius toward the fast ferry Ava Pearl, under tow by a 25-foot Sea Tow boat.

The MV Ava Pearl, a fast ferry that makes trips between Rhode Island and Oak Bluffs, lost the use of both engines on Sunday due to “accidental activation of the emergency stop systems,” U.S. Coast Guard assistant inspection chief Carl Moberg said in an interview with The Times Thursday.

Moberg said the vessel encountered heavy seas, and ‘loose material’ struck side-by-side emergency stop buttons. The buttons look like “red mushroom heads,” and were unshielded, he said. Often, he said, such buttons require a glass shield to be broken in order to push them. As part of their inspection of the vessel on Monday, Moberg’s office told Rhode Island Fast Ferry to install shields, he said.

In a statement issued Wednesday afternoon by Rhode Island Fast Ferry president Charles Donadio Jr., the loss of power was blamed on “unsecured gear; a portable heater used as an auxiliary window heater, falling into the vessel’s emergency stop buttons.”

Once the buttons were activated, engine loss codes needed to be reset to restart the engines, Moberg said, and it appears the crew did not realize this. The Ava Pearl underwent private sea trials and Coast Guard sea trials before being cleared for service, Moberg said. Asked about the scale of waves and the wind velocity during the Ava Pearl’s distress, Moberg said that was the purview of an investigative branch of the Coast Guard that will draft a report — the Marine Casualty Investigations Division, according to Petty Officer Andrew Barresi.

“Your vessel should always be secure for the seas you expect,” Moberg said. “It was a mistake.”

‘Mayday, mayday’
Tisbury harbormaster John Crocker heard the Ava Pearl mayday call over the radio from the harbormaster’s office in Tisbury. “I heard, ‘Mayday, mayday,” Crocker said. The captain said he was dead in the water, anchor out, and indicated his location. “The captain certainly had a sound of concern in his voice,” he said.

In a transmission released to The Times, Captain Tony Bessinger radioed, “Mayday, mayday. High speed ferry Ava Pearl. Just outside of Oak Bluffs Harbor. Lost all propulsion.”

In a subsequent transmission, Crocker recalled, Bessinger sounded “like he was very concerned about that anchor holding.”

“I got the sense he was kind of in the washline there. It’s one of the more dangerous places to be anchored. Waves get bigger when the depth gets shallower. When they start to break, there’s a tremendous amount of force. If you’re that close to shore and [the anchor] drags a little bit, you’re in trouble.”

Crocker lauded both Captain Bessinger and the as yet unidentified captain of the Sea Tow rescue boat Defender for their actions.

“He was in a very precarious situation,” Crocker said of Bessinger. “From the radio, it sounded like he did everything right. It didn’t sound like he had any room for error.”

“That crew was very professional. They knew exactly what to do and they did it,” Captain Randy Jardin said. Jardin was on scene aboard the tugboat Sirius, and then aboard the Ava Pearl in order to facilitate alongside towing.

The feat of the 25-foot Sea Tow Defender pulling the 108.6-foot Ava Pearl away from shore “was impressive,” Crocker said.“That’s a lot of inertia, drag, and windage.”

“I couldn’t believe he was towing that boat,’ Jardin said. “That guy did an awesome job.”