Strong winds send boats, rescuers flying off Menemsha Harbor

One sailboat was saved, one was lost despite a rescue effort that the Chilmark harbormaster described as ill advised.

A crew from Coast Guard Station Menemsha aboard a 47-foot motor lifeboat scrambled unsuccessfully to keep a sailboat from sinking in rough seas outside Menemsha harbor after she ran up on the Lobsterville jetty in high winds August 16. — Bret Stearns

Updated 2 pm, Friday

Strong west winds Wednesday morning, gusting up to 40 knots, spelled trouble for two sailboats that began dragging their anchors outside Menemsha Harbor.

A crew from Coast Guard Station Menemsha in a 47-foot motor lifeboat assisted by Chilmark harbormaster Dennis Jason were able to board the sailboat Vixen and put out more anchor line, stabilizing her. No one was aboard at the time. The other sailboat, with one man aboard, was not as fortunate.

The 26-foot sailboat ended up being pounded against the Lobsterville jetty where the owner, cut and battered, managed to clamber up on the rocks after desperate efforts to save his boat. Aquinnah harbormaster Brian “Chip” Vanderhoop, his brother and charter captain Buddy Vanderhoop, and Marty McNary, captain of the Menemsha bike ferry, managed to get a grappling hook attached to a line around the mast of the sailboat. They then attached a buoy to the line, walked down the jetty, and threw it to Bret Stearns, Wampanoag Tribe natural resources director, who was with ranger Tyler Moreis in the tribal response boat.

The men towed the boat off out of the shallow water past the green can into deeper water, where the Coast Guard took command of the vessel. Despite the crew’s best efforts to save the sailboat, there was substantial damage and she sank in about 11 feet of water east of the channel off Menemsha Beach, according to the Coast Guard.

In the aftermath of the failed effort, on Thursday afternoon Chilmark harbormaster Dennis Jason headed out to try and locate and mark the sailboat where she lay in the bottom. Mr. Jason said it was a poor decision to pull the vessel, which has a hole in the hull, off the jetty. Mr. Jason said the question was not whether they could pull it off the rocks, but what they were going to do once they got it off the rocks. He said the wiser course of action would have been to leave the boat where it was and then pull it up on the beach once the weather calmed. Mr. Jason said his concern was that the boat, now underwater, could drift into his mooring field — or worse — into the harbor channel.

Mr. Jason said the Aquinnah harbormaster and tribe handed the boat off to the Coast Guard as it was sinking. “The Coast Guard got roped into it,” he said. “They ended up with a hot potato in their hands.”

In a telephone conversation Friday, Mr. McNary was highly critical of Mr. Jason’s actions and he took sharp exception to the notion that the boat was a lost cause and trying to save her was a poor decision. “You had two harbormasters that were involved and one of them didn’t do anything except to say that a bad decision was made to help a guy out,” Mr. McNary said.

“He didn’t do anything. He didn’t even show up. And I understand its now an inconvenience for him — sure, it’s very easy to say, lets let that sailboat smash on the rocks and we’ll come and get it later but that guy had everything he owned on it,” he said. “And ultimately the boat sank so he didn’t really win out anyways but to say we’re going to let the boat sink right here and smash itself on the rocks … while the Coast Guard stands by off the shore and the only people that are doing anything about it are two 70-year-old guys [Chip and Buddy] and a tribal boat and dude that drives the boat ferry two days a week.”

Mr. McNary, 45, said he makes his living on the water and described himself as a professional mariner. He said the whole situation was upsetting. Irrespective of the outcome, lending a hand to try and save the boat was the right thing to do, he said.

“Just watching Buddy and Chip stagger around out there at their age, both of them are professional mariners, they’ve spend their lives doing things on the water and it was dangerous for a whole host of reasons and I think those guys should be acknowledged for that and it should not be insinuated that they used poor judgement — they didn’t. They helped somebody.”