Menemsha harbormaster, boater rescue passengers off burning 42-foot sportfisherman

Shortly after the owner and his guest were pulled off the boat the cockpit was engulfed in flames.

Coast Guard Station Menemsha and Chilmark harbormaster department personnel rushed to assist a stricken boat off Menemsha Saturday. Photo Kevin R.A. Walsh.

Updated 8 pm, Sunday

A pleasant day on the water Saturday ended with a harrowing rescue and the charred hull of “Shark Bite,” a 42-foot Ocean sportfisherman out of Onset pulled up on Lobsterville Beach.

Just before 5 pm, Saturday, Menemsha harbormaster Dennis Jason and crews from Coast Guard Station Menemsha responded to a report of smoke coming from a large sport fishing boat that had just dropped anchor to the west of the entrance to Menemsha harbor.

William Benns, Nashawena Island caretaker, was at the helm of his Nauset 35 “Pictor” on his way into Menemsha to pick up his girlfriend when he saw what at first looked like fog coming from a boat that had just exited the harbor and people assembling on the bow. “I said, this isn’t right,” Mr. Benns told The Times.

Mr. Benns realized that smoke was coming from the vessel. He called the Coast Guard and described what he saw. As he was on the radio with the Coast Guard Mr. Jason was on his way out of the harbor to offer assistance.

Mr. Jason, the first to arrive, took seven passengers including one women and three children, off the boat. The boat owner and a guest remained behind, Mr. Benns said and were attempting to save the vessel which was quickly becoming engulfed in thick, black smoke. Mr. Benns stood off a short distance in the Pictor.

From their vantage point, the men could not see inside the engine compartment. “I could see flames in the engine room, through the vent window,” Mr. Benns said.

Mr. Benns moved in closer and placed his boat stern-to-stern. “You guys have got to get off that boat,” Mr. Benns demanded. One man quickly complied. The owner was still trying to fight the fire when Mr. Benns insisted he give up the fight.

Mr. Benns said he pulled away and was about 150 feet from the stricken vessel when flames engulfed the cabin. A Coast Guard crew arrived in a 25-foot rigid hull fast response boat. Once they were assured everyone was safely off the burning boat the Coast Guard crew raced back into the harbor and returned in a 47-foot motor lifeboat.

The crew attempted to fight the fire using a dewatering pump without much effect. “There was nothing they could do,” Mr. Benns said.

Mr. Benns brought one of the men into port. The captain transferred to a small zodiac that belonged to one of the members of the Point Independence Yacht Club, of which he is a member, to watch the Coast Guard efforts.

“It all happened so fast,” Mr. Benns said. “It wasn’t 30 seconds before I had those two guys off and it was engulfed.”

Mr. Benns said it was clear the two men did not realize the seriousness of the situation because they were on the deck and adamant about trying to save the boat. “They didn’t really want to come off and I demanded they come with me,” he said.

Captain William “Buddy” Vanderhoop, an experienced charter captain said he was with his brother, Brian “Chip” Vanderhoop, Aquinnah harbormaster, when a friend called him and said it appeared the captain was having a problem because smoke was filling the cockpit and he had everyone on board gather at the bow.

“Chip and I reported it to the Coast Guard,” Mr. Vanderhoop told The Times. “It looked like he was having real bad trouble.”

The fire appeared to be electrical in nature, according to the Coast Guard. Shark Bite was put up on Lobsterville Beach and surrounded with booms to contain any fuel leaks, the Coast Guard said.