New Bedford fishing vessel goes aground
As of late yesterday afternoon, Coast Guard officials were still working out the best way to refloat Midnight Rider, a 71-foot fishing vessel from New Bedford that washed up on Norton Point Beach Saturday morning.
The Coast Guard is working with a private marine towing and salvage company in order to pull the boat from the shore when weather conditions comply.
Around 10 pm on Friday, the Coast Guard received a radio call from the Midnight Rider stating that it was hard aground in Muskeget Channel, according to a Coast Guard press release. About half an hour later, the Coast Guard received another call saying the vessel was taking on water and needed assistance.
"Midnight Rider" sat high and dry on Norton Point Beach just west of Wasque Point Saturday afternoon. Photo by Julia Spiro
Rescue helicopters from Air Station Cape Cod and rescue boats from Coast Guard Stations Brant Point and Menemsha were launched shortly afterwards.
A Jayhawk helicopter hoisted Captain Kevin Arrula, 40, Donald Bachand, 40, and Roy Lasham, 40, off the boat in good condition around midnight. According to the Coast Guard, the rescue was completed in 42 minutes.
Over the course of the next few hours, the boat floated off the shoal and drifted west, eventually ending up high and dry on Norton Point beach, the barrier beach that connects Chappaquiddick Island with Katama. The beaching created something of a logistical and environmental nightmare for The Trustees of The Reservations (TTOR), the private conservation agency that manages the county-owned beach.
The vessel landed at the western end of the two-mile long beach in an area currently closed to public access to protect nesting shorebirds from any disturbance. But the most immediate concern was the risk that the vessel might begin to break up and leak fuel.
On Tuesday, a private company removed the 1,200 gallons of diesel fuel that were onboard by pumping it into 300-gallon tanks, and then into 55-gallon drums. The drums were transported down the beach to a waiting tank truck. The process began around 9 am and was completed by 3 pm that afternoon. The fuel weighs six pounds per gallon, so with the boat now 7,200 pounds lighter, it should be slightly easier to tow from shore.
One question still not answered is why the unmanned boat was allowed to drift throughout the night in rough seas and high winds.
Scott Carr, US Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer and District 1 spokesman, said that the vessel might not have been secured with an anchor during the rescue, possibly leading to its westward drift. "Boats are left to drift at sea all the time," he said on Wednesday. "The main concern is getting the people off the boat." Chief Carr said that taking the time to set an anchor might not have been safe. "If the boat is taking on water, it wouldn't make sense to put another person down there to place an anchor," he said. He also explained that it was not the Coast Guard's decision to leave the vessel secured or unsecured, but the decision of the captain. "It's the captain's call. If the captain makes the decision to abandon ship, then they abandon ship. I'm not going to second-guess the captain, because I wasn't there. The master of that vessel is a man who has obviously spent a fair amount of time at sea, or else he wouldn't be a captain, and he felt the need to get off the boat." He added, "We're not responsible for the vessel. Our primary mission is to save the people on board the boat. We also want to make sure there is no pollution."
Dave Belcher, TTOR Chappaquiddick superintendent, said he was concerned about the effect on the surrounding area of nesting birds. "It's right smack in the middle," he said. "We're trying to keep the general public away and cause as little disturbance as we can with the birds."
Chris Kennedy, TTOR regional supervisor, reiterated Mr. Belcher's apprehension. "We've already lost six tern nests because of the disturbance," he said on Tuesday. "We've put a lot of time and energy into protecting these birds." Mr. Belcher said that the situation is also straining TTOR resources. "We've had to station rangers out there all day long, a number of them, just to keep the public from the nesting areas. It's more expenses for us, because it's extra staff," he said.
In addition to unsettling the nesting shorebirds, the vessel has dramatically altered the appearance of its surrounding shoreline. On the west side of the boat, a sandbar has built up, and on the east side, a small sand bluff has been formed.
Mr. Belcher said there is still a question of whether a tugboat would be able to pull the vessel from the shore. "We don't know if they're going to have to salvage the boat right there on the beach," he said. On Tuesday, however, during high tide, a glimmer of hope was evident when the boat was gently rocking back and forth, a clear sign that its position might be loosening.
Conrad Roy, owner and president of Tucker-Roy Marine Towing and Salvage in New Bedford, the company hired to pull the boat from shore, said that they haven't been able to remove the boat yet because of weather conditions. "On Saturday, we couldn't get a line into the boat because of the weather," he explained. "There were six foot waves." Using a 100-foot tugboat, Mr. Roy said that the job shouldn't be too difficult as long as the waters are calm. However, he said that if the boat fills up with sand, the process could become much more difficult. Mr. Roy joked that Norton Point might end up gaining a "new monument."
Mr. Kennedy is hoping that the boat will be removed by Thursday, but he is discouraged by the unanswered questions the abandoned vessel raises. Despite the fact that the Coast Guard said the boat was taking on water when it first went aground in Muskeget Channel, it appeared differently to Mr. Kennedy when he saw the boat drift toward Norton Point." I saw the boat coming in to shore over an eight-foot-deep sandbar," he said. "It was riding high and dry, and didn't seem to be taking in any water." Mr. Kennedy said on Wednesday that, despite the need to lighten the vessel, the bilges of the boat have not been pumped out, as there is very little water in them. "The Coast Guard says they've launched an investigation," he said. "The Trustees of Reservations have a lot of questions about how the boat ended up on Norton Point Beach," he said. "If it could have and should have been prevented, then that's a disappointment."