Tisbury harbor boat no help at boat fire

Former harbor staffer ‘angry,’ ‘embarrassed’ he couldn’t fight Charlotte Anne blaze.

The Tisbury harbor patrol boat, which recently sank, was useless when it came to fighting fires, a former harbor department employee says. - Rich Saltzberg

The Tisbury harbor patrol boat is out of action and on a trailer in the DPW yard after sinking at the Owen Park Dock. Despite being outfitted with a custom fire pump and water cannon, the vessel has allegedly never fought a fire. A boat fire from two years ago offers clues as to why. 

On the morning of June 23, 2017, the 35-foot fiberglass workboat Charlotte Anne caught fire at a pier in Lake Tashmoo. Tisbury harbormaster John Crocker happened to be nearby on his personal boat with his son. He called in the fire. Assistant harbormaster Jim Pepper was aboard his personal boat in Vineyard Haven Harbor when he got a call about the fire from Crocker’s son. Pepper made haste to the harbor patrol boat. Once at the helm, he said, he traveled between the Owen Park Dock and Drew’s Cove in Lake Tashmoo at 40 knots and arrived in about five minutes. Pepper said he was the first emergency responder to arrive on scene. The Charlotte Anne was unoccupied, so there was nobody to save. The harbor patrol boat was outfitted with a water cannon and custom fire pump, but Pepper said he “knew it didn’t work, so I didn’t try it.” Pepper said he felt “angry” and “embarrassed” he couldn’t combat the fire. 

“All I could really do was stand by for the fire department,” he said.

Tisbury firefighters eventually attacked the Charlotte Anne fire from Northern Pine Road, and with assistance from Red, White and Blue, the Oak Bluffs fire and police boat, extinguished the vessel. John Packer, owner of the Charlotte Anne, declined to speculate whether the water cannon from the Tisbury harbor patrol boat would have minimized damage to the vessel. He did say, due to the high heat burning fiberglass reaches, if fiberglass boat fires aren’t snuffed out very shortly after ignition, the flames are nearly impossible to arrest. Packer said the Charlotte Anne was a great “do-all” boat, and he’s held onto the charred shell, describing it as “rebuildable.” But he added, “Whether I’ll live long enough to rebuild it remains debatable.” 

After the Tisbury harbor patrol boat sank on Oct. 3, its fire suppression system received criticism from some Tisbury officials, and blame was cast on former harbormaster John “Jay” Wilbur for ordering an unproven system to fit his own specifications. Wilbur disputes the allegation the system was his singular vision. The cause of the sinking is still under investigation. However, Terrell Wiggins, general manager of Welded Boat Co., builder of the vessel, told The Times he thought water intrusion through the fire suppression system could be a cause. 

Given his years at the Tisbury Harbor Department and his familiarity with the harbor patrol boat, Pepper said, he was surprised no one reached out to him sooner for his opinion. He said he was “not surprised” the vessel sank. “I would be shocked if it’s somehow not related to the fire system,” he said. 

Pepper described the fire suppression system on the harbor patrol boat as ill-conceived, improperly maintained, and saddled with complexities akin to a “Rube Goldberg machine.”

He said the town made numerous attempts to get the fire suppression system to work properly, but it never did, save for a couple of tests. Other than the “cumbersome” and “awkward” operation procedure, which Pepper said involved lifting hatches and turning valves in a specific sequence and in certain directions — none of which would be readily apparent to anyone not deeply versed in the system — the system required a separate pump be activated in order to prime itself for use. However involved they were, Pepper said, the procedures were largely moot because the system generally wasn’t in working order. From the start, he said nobody could figure out why a boat made of aluminium, with through-hull piping made of aluminium, would have bronze valves. He said the different metals were “problematic,” an invitation for electrolysis, and, in effect, made the vessel a “battery.” 

While he said he’s unsure if decay from electrolysis was behind the sinking, he did say the two bilge pumps on the vessel failed, and required repair or replacement more than usual. On the day he went to the Charlotte Anne fire, Pepper said, he suspected the system wasn’t working because the engine control module of the skimobile engine that powered the system was kaput, likely from saltwater decay. 

The maintenance of the system and the boat overall was always lackluster, Pepper said. Wilbur, he alleged, was disinclined to asked the board of selectmen for the funds necessary to properly maintain the boat. Moreover, that board was unwilling to spend resources on the harbor department, he said. The fire suppression system was never taken apart and serviced, and the town mechanic was often at a loss as to how to keep it working, he said. Pepper said he was charged with much of the boat’s upkeep, and spent a lot of time on it, but the annual work it really needed could only be done in a shipyard, and nobody wanted to foot the bill. He also alleged Wilbur took advantage of his labor on the boat in lieu of professional service. Pepper said he advocated for taking the boat out of the water in the winter, but Wilbur allegedly said he wanted it in year-round. 

Tisbury Fire Chief John Schilling said his department wasn’t consulted on the final design of the fire suppression system, and wasn’t given a copy of the Federal Emergency Management Agency grant that financed the boat, even though the boat reads “FIRE” across the bow. Pepper confirmed the fire department was excluded.

“[Wilbur] never wanted them to have anything to do with it,” he said. 

Reached by phone, Wilbur declined to comment on anything to do with the vessel or the harbor department.

Tisbury town administrator John (“Jay”) Grande previously indicated the town would get rid of the vessel. “[T]he boat is unreliable, and replacement is the likely outcome,” he emailed. 

Pepper doesn’t think the boat should be discarded, even if the engines and electronics are shot. He described the boat itself as “quick” and “efficient,” and worth saving. 

“It would be an awful waste to get rid of it,” he said. He advocated for refitting the boat, and ripping out the fire suppression system and replacing it with a portable fire pump such as the Tisbury Fire Department uses on its boat. Getting rid of the boat, he said, would be due to “politics,” not logic. 

Packer said he has replaced the Charlotte Anne with another boat called the Charlotte Anne that is painted to look like the previous boat. “It looks just enough like the old boat that people think it’s the old boat,” he said. 

The cause of the fire, Packer said, appears to have been electrical, possibly from a bilge pump.

Pepper remains miffed about showing up at a boat fire and being unable to help suppress it, but given the unreliability of the fire suppression system, he was experienced at such haplessness.

“It wasn’t the first time I wound up in a situation like that,” he said.