Decrepit state of Tisbury moorings irks mariners

Investigation of mysterious marine electric current afoot.

Matt Hobart (left) and Jeff Canha (right) discuss mooring maintenance at Wednesday's harbor management committee meeting. Harbormaster John Crocker (back left) and chairman Jerry Goodale (back center) are seated in the background.

Updated May 23, 3:30 pm

Local mariners are growing concerned about the poor condition of town moorings in Vineyard Haven Harbor after failures with two of them during the March 2 nor’easter sent a schooner and a sloop aground.

“You can’t trust them,” Black Dog founder Bob Douglas, a veteran sailor and maritime historian, told The Times.

“I would say that the majority of them are unsafe. That includes chain and elastic [conservation],” mariner Lynne Fraker said.

Vineyard Haven Harbor has two types of town moorings — conservation or “rubber-band” moorings, and chain moorings. Rubber-band moorings are shorter in scope, and made of rubber and rope. Chain moorings are longer in scope, and made of one or two lengths of chain. Both types are fastened to concrete blocks.

A town conservation mooring that held the Douglas family sloop McNab during the March nor’easter broke and sent the vessel onto Owen Park Beach.

“It disintegrated,” Douglas said of the mooring line. He said it may have been grazed by a propeller previously, and therefore weakened. The McNab is undergoing thousands of dollars in repairs as a result of the grounding, he said, and the town, through its mooring lease, has absolved itself of liability.

“Nobody else could get away with running a business like that,” he said, “to offer a service — that is, providing a mooring — and have them fail. That’s unacceptable.”

Gannon and Benjamin owner Nat Benjamin said the schooner Heart’s Desire, which is owned by his employee Matt Hobart, broke its mooring chain in the March 2 storm. Hobart said the break was in or just below the mooring ball. The schooner went hard aground on the edge of Beach Road, and almost struck power lines with its masts. Hobart said Heart’s Desire was towed off the edge of the road by a tug and put on another town chain mooring close to the Steamship Authority channel, and subsequently dragged that two-ton mooring right in front of the Coastwise Packet dock. A crew from Gannon and Benjamin then took the schooner out to yet another mooring, and it stayed put, Hobart said.

Hobart said Heart’s Desire suffered $18,000 worth of damage. He described the town’s moorings as being “in a deplorable state.”

Tisbury harbor management committee member Jeff Canha, a mariner and fisherman, said he’s witnessed moorings lifted from the harbor floor for inspection. “I haven’t seen one that’s come up that could go back down in the condition it’s in,” he said.

Tisbury harbormaster John Crocker told the harbor management committee Wednesday evening that he had nine moorings inspected in the harbor recently.

“It came as a surprise to me that four of these blocks were bad,” he said. “Four out of nine, that’s a lot. So I am more concerned than ever about the status of these moorings in the harbor.” Crocker told the committee he intends to inspect 29 more moorings.

On Tuesday night, Tisbury selectmen approved a request by Crocker to seek a $25,000 transfer from the town’s reserve fund to pay for those inspections. The funding still has to be approved by the town’s finance committee.

Jeff Kristal, finance committee chairman, who was at the selectmen’s meeting, said there’s no guarantee that that board will support the funding. “It’s Tisbury taxpayer money being used to pay for waterways,” he said.

Selectmen said it may be time to relook at how much is being charged in mooring fees, to cover the expense of more frequent inspections.

“We very rarely replaced the actual block,” former Tisbury harbormaster Jay Wilbur said.

Asked if the state of the moorings played a role in boat groundings in March, Wilbur said, “My first thought would be that people are getting a bit carried away. Vineyard Haven Harbor is not a particularly secure harbor in the wintertime.”

Wilbur, who ran the harbor for 24 years, said he was closely involved in the mooring inspections that took place during his watch.

“I was always doing the actual visual inspection myself,” he said. “I didn’t sleep well at night if I didn’t do it myself.”

Gene DeCosta, who runs a mooring inspection company, said he did the first mooring inspections in the harbor in 1976 for the late Donald King, Wilbur’s predecessor. DeCosta said Crocker has had to deal with a lot of carryover mooring problems and other problems from his former boss, Wilbur.

“John Crocker has his hands full. He inherited a lot of problems, believe me,” DeCosta said. Many of the moorings are too old, he said. “The bails that hold the chains on are just worn out.”

For chain moorings, the chain is shackled to the concrete mooring block through a loop of metal protruding from the block called a bail, Crocker said. When the bail can’t be saved, the block has to be replaced, he said.

DeCosta said chain movement eventually rubs down the metal of the bail, and that chains can also chafe against the mooring block and sand away the concrete.

Offshore Engineering owner John Packer, a harbor management committee member, said mooring chains often decay toward the harbor floor.

“Many chains deteriorate the most near the bottom,” he said, and highlighted the interface of the water and mud. Chain under the mud doesn’t oxidize, he said, and chain above it gets encrusted with barnacles and other marine growth that protects against rust and wear, but just on the bottom, chains rub over rocks, mud, and against their own links, and invite decay.

Asked how long mooring chains last in the harbor, Packer said, “That’s like asking a tire guy how long your tires are going to last.”

The ⅝-inch chain Tisbury typically buys lasts approximately three years, Steve Fasnick, manager at New England Marine and Industrial in Marshfield, said. Chain that size is about $10.50 per foot, while 1-inch chain runs about $29 a foot.

Rick Waldron, owner of MV Dock and Float, has Tisbury’s new mooring inspection contract. Recently he repaired several moorings in tough shape. He’s glad they were found before another boat went on the beach, he said.

Waldron described Vineyard Haven Harbor as the most active year-round on the Island, both in terms of vessels and current and wave action. The continuously high level of activity, more than anything else, takes a high toll on moorings, he said. A proposal put forth to change mooring inspection intervals from every three years to every two years will make a big difference in keeping them in sound condition, he said.

“This is what I inherited. It’s a very difficult situation. The town moorings are not in the shape they should be now, but they will be,” Crocker said.

Electricity in the water?
“We have some concern about electricity in the water that could be caused by leaking current,” Crocker said. Harbor management committee chairman Jerry Goodale brought the issue up a few meetings ago after a zinc decayed too swiftly on a sailboat of his moored in the harbor, Crocker said. Zincs are a type of anode, often called a sacrificial anode, meant to mitigate electrolysis generated by boats.

“It seems like there’s an issue with zincs in the harbor,” Goodale told The Times.

“It’s got to be stray electricity from somewhere,” he said. Goodale said it was his understanding Crocker and the DPW were investigating the issue.

Crocker confirmed he tapped the DPW to conduct voltage tests. DPW director Ray Tattersall could not be reached to elaborate.

DeCosta suspects shore power — electricity used to charge Steamship Authority vessels at night — may be to blame, and that it may be aging mooring chains through electrolysis. He said he used to have a mooring near the the Steamship Authority channel, and the electrolysis there was potent. “Right there was bad, real bad,” he said.

Canha pointed out there are two mysterious black cables draped into the water by the dinghy dock that runs along the side of the Steamship Authority bulkhead. However, he also said, he himself hasn’t noticed any unusually speedy decay on his boat zincs.

Waldron said the electrical activity in Vineyard Haven Harbor is minuscule compared with New Bedford Harbor, but he also conceded, “To say that there’s none would be a lie.”

Tisbury wiring inspector Ray Gosselin said he hasn’t been called down to look at anything at the Steamship Authority terminal, and that it’s actually the purview of the state electrical inspector. Calls to the state electrical inspector’s office were not immediately returned.

In an email to The Times, Steamship Authority general manager Robert Davis wrote that terminal wiring was recently examined.

“I am told that that wire is not live, as we sent our electrician to check it,” he wrote. “Also, in connection with the repairs being made on the dock in Vineyard Haven, a diver recently inspected the wiring and found no faults with the wiring.”

Chilmark contended with the threat of stray voltage in Menemsha Harbor for nearly a year after several people suffered shocks last summer. While one major cause was eliminated through a repair overseen by inspector of wires Cole Powers, town officials had been unable to declare the seawater there free of current. Recently, however, Powers conducted marine voltage tests with both the harbor electrical system “at rest” and “under load,” and found no electricity in the water there, according to Chilmark selectmen chairman Jim Malkin.

Updated to include comments from the Steamship Authority general manager, Master Chief Smith, and others.


  1. Yes, the Harbormaster inherited a mess but the problems were made worse when he did improper inspections of both chain and elastic moorings. Over the past 2 years there was ample opportunity to make the Harbor safe. Neither chain nor elastic moorings were properly inspected. The issues with elastic moorings were known. And despite this negligence the Town claims they have no liability because you sign a lease worded to protect the Town. So then the Harbormaster is not held accountable for not properly inspecting Town moorings. No boats should be on any Town mooring until it he moorong is properly inspected. Chain or elastic, yet the moorings are full. You cannot trust that your boat or the boat next to you, on aTown mooring, is safe. The Town owns 53 moorings in Vineyard Haven Harbor. Only 4 are safe today.

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