Harbormaster boat engines are a total loss

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

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.


    • Insurance Policy better have included negligence for engines-cause i’m not paying one more red cent for the Town of Tisburys complete and utter incompetence-such a simple thing sensor to your iphone would have alerted in minutes-Emergency Manager for the town– LOL

  1. And the cover up begins. Past problems with the design of this boat are well documented in the Times and Harbor Mgt Committee minutes. Whistleblower alerts ignored. A 2017 Harbor warrant article to repair the fire suppression equipment never implemented. But that was all in the past. Wilbur left in 2016. The Harbor Dept is well aware of the high potential for continued electrolysis on this aluminum boat. The Town needs to closely examine current maintenance records, independently. And report back to the public.

  2. This was inevitable. I remember the conversations both public and private around Jay’s pet project. And his buddy Tristan let him get away with this mess. For Jay to say he had a “small” role is a blatant lie. What an incredible waste.

  3. This boat was never needed, and it wasted otherwise valuable dock space. The fact that it was neither used or maintained supports the fact that it was and is not needed. DO the tax payers a favor, collect the insurance money, sell the boat, and start renting the dock space during the summer.

  4. An excellent, thorough article by Rich Salzberg, that presents the undeniable conclusion Town of TIsbury finances continue to be under the wise stewardship of our elected representatives, the Board of Selectmen. Their dedication to fiscal responsibility is beyond reproach.

  5. John Crocker is a competent and capable gentleman that is being pulled in 100 directions all summer.
    The level of service he provides all the while multitasking year round, is exceptional.
    This mishap is clearly an accident that exacerbated by an overly customized work boat that was poorly engineered by the former Harbormaster. I think a guy who thought he was slick enough to sneak his name onto the MV map unnoticed would also be dumb enough to set up a work boat in a manner that would require two people just to operate the boat that is normally staffed by a single person.

    If the town likes it or not, John Crocker has at least a decade of Jay Wilbur’s crap to clean up left. This poor boat is only one example. The VH inner harbor moorings are the next huge Jay Wilbur problem that John Crocker has to tackle next.
    It took a decade for Jay to mess these things up due to negligence. Reasonably speaking, it’s going to take the current harbor master and equal amount of time to remedy these things all the while keeping the harbor open and making the town money. John Crocker deserves our support so we can all have a safe and properly functioning harbor to enjoy. I believe this issue will be brought to a honest conclusion.

    • Sadly your comment is anonymous. You are slightly misinformed. Although that boat was never right, it has been operated by a single experienced Assistant each season. It would be safer to have a second crew, and should be SOP, but it is not. Much of the mess left in the Harbor has been cleaned up. Now maintenance . Multitasking is a skill reserved for strong managers. I hope you will bring this issue to an honest, public, resolution.

  6. let’s be real here– While Wilbur may be responsible for a lot of this, my first question is this — How does the harbormaster get to design a custom built one of a kind boat that obviously is not workable from the get-go. ? Who approved the money for this ? let’s get real– if my 8 year old grandson wants me to spend $30,000 on a tree fort for himself, I am not going to ask his 4 year old sister if that’s ok.
    Is there no adult supervision at all in this town ?
    We debate a glass of wine with dinner in a restaurant for years, and “we” let this financial fiasco go through.
    This is an insane systemic failure of the process of oversight as to how and why the town spends money.

  7. Not to mention how terrified and vulnerable the people of Tisbury must be without the comforting presence of a formidable homeland security boat.

    • feilding– i actually have been paying attention, but rarely does one get the opportunity to point it out in such an obvious scenario. The fact that the harbormaster can do this is even more glaring than the school fiasco. imagine if the principal of the school could draw up the blueprints for a new school, and without any discussion with the town or the building department , build it. it’s only a matter of scale.

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