Harbormaster boat engines are a total loss

Questions raised about fire-suppression system fire department did not authorize.

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Tisbury’s harbor patrol boat has been trailered to the DPW yard following unsuccessful efforts to salvage its engines after it mysteriously sunk Thursday. –Rich Saltzberg

The engines of the Tisbury harbormaster’s boat are a loss, according to Tisbury town administrator John (“Jay”) Grande. The vessel sank Thursday morning at the Owen Park dock for reasons that haven’t yet been identified.

In addition to the loss of the two 250-horsepower Mercury outboard engines, Grande said the vessel’s electronics will need to be replaced. Tisbury paid $15,616 for the vessel’s electronics in 2011. It’s unclear how much the engines cost, as they were not itemized in an invoice provided by the Tisbury accounting department. In an email sent Friday afternoon, Grande wrote, “The engines and electronics will need to be replaced at a substantial cost.”

Grande told The Times the vessel would be trailered from Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard to the Tisbury department of public works lot to await inspection by an insurance adjuster and a marine surveyor.

The Tisbury harbormaster’s boat is a custom vessel built by Welded Boat Co. of Texas. The funds to build the boat came from a FEMA grant designed to provide Tisbury with a port security fire and patrol boat, according to Terrell Wiggins, general manager of Welded Boat Co. and confirmed by Grande and harbormaster John Crocker.

Tisbury Fire Chief John Schilling told The Times the Tisbury Fire Department has never fought a fire with the fire-suppression system on the harbormaster’s boat. 

“The system that was installed there was never utilized by the fire department due to its complexity to operate, and its lack of meeting our [department’s] specs,” Chief Schilling said. The fire department was afforded some early consultation during the design of the vessel, which petered off without follow-through, Chief Schilling said, and the fire department was not consulted on the final design of the vessel. 

“He didn’t work with the fire department in this process,” Crocker said of former harbormaster John (“Jay”) Wilbur.

Wiggins said the vessel was a concept of Wilbur’s. The construction involved a number of special design features, allegedly in order to accommodate Wilbur’s requests. Among them were dual through-hull intakes for the fire-suppression system. That system required Welded Boat Co. to find the biggest snowmobile engine available at the time in order to power it, Wiggins said. Wiggins said the system utilized four-inch aluminium pipe that could not be coated on the inside, therefore requiring frequent flushing. In the end, Wiggins said, the system was complex, and he told Wilbur it would require extraordinary maintenance to stave off corrosion and other problems. Wiggins alleged that not long after taking delivery of the boat, Wilbur failed to exercise the required maintenance regimen.

Grande said the vessel suffered from “corrosion concerns back in 2013.”

Wiggins said it was possible intrusion through the fire-suppression system could have caused the boat to sink, but he said so from Texas, and has not inspected the vessel. Crocker is in charge of the investigation, and said he has yet to find a cause. He said he worked under Wilbur back when the boat was designed, which included ordering it, but had no role in the vessel’s design. 

Wilbur “was the one who said what would be built,” Crocker said. “There’s no question about it. Wilbur was the only one in contact with the boatyard.”

Reached late Friday afternoon, Wilbur denied this, and said the vessel was designed by a committee that included the fire and harbor departments.

“I had a small role,” Wilbur said. “I didn’t really do much of the decision-making.”

“The fire-suppression system was criticized from the onset,” Grande wrote. “The design of the boat and fire-suppression system had no input from the fire department at the time when the vessel specs were developed, and during actual procurement and construction. The operational criticism is the multiple steps and necessity to have two individuals operate the system, which leaves you with the obvious question — Who is driving the boat?” 

Grande went on to write, “The engine for the fire-suppression system is a snowmobile engine. Further, the vessel is not stock, and [is] one of a kind.”

Schilling noted a snowmobile engine is inherently not a marine engine. He also said in order to get water to shoot through the firefighting spray nozzle, difficult-to-access valves must be reached. “The valves to operate the system were all located below deck, so deck plates would have to be removed in order to open the valves to charge the system,” Schilling said. 

The vessel possesses “through the hull suction” so a line over the side wasn’t required, Schilling noted. Wiggins said Wilbur ordered two intake valves positioned in the hull such that even if the boat were partly beached, it could draw water. 

“That wasn’t my decision alone,” Wilbur said of the intakes. He then declined further comment on the vessel.

Schilling said the fire department would have preferred a vessel with valves that were “easily accessible,” and an overall system that would operate after “several steps,” as opposed to “several dozen steps.”

“The operational issues and concerns were proven in reality,” Grande wrote. In “2017, a live drill training exercise was conducted by the harbormaster and fire department in Lagoon Pond. The fire-suppression system worked for a short duration during the drill. Following the drill, the harbormaster and fire chief opted to rely on a portable system, as utilized in neighboring towns.” 

“We were never availed a copy of the grant,” Schilling said. “We weren’t included in the application process, and we never saw the final approval.”

“There was a discussion about trading in the vessel,” Grande wrote. “The relative young age of the vessel and cost of a new vessel were factors that deferred taking that action last April.” Grande went on, “We will review the options moving forward. However, the boat is unreliable, and replacement is the likely outcome.”

Tisbury selectman Jeff Krystal said he observed Wilbur at the Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard Thursday, when the vessel was still there. 

This is a developing story.