Coast Guard: North Carolina dinner boat ran aground as result of engine failure

A dinner cruise ship carrying 46 passengers and four crew lost power and partially ran aground in the Intracoastal Waterway near Surf City, N.C.

The 55-foot Belle of Topsail then drifted toward shore and dropped anchor with at least part of the vessel resting on soft sand lining the channel, according to the U.S. Coast Guard, which responded to the incident.

The ship’s captain disputes the official Coast Guard narrative of the June 28 incident, claiming he steered toward shore and dropped anchor near the edge of the channel to avoid blocking the waterway.

“The boat never ran aground. We dropped anchor in shallow water,” Capt. David Luther said, adding that while part of the boat bumped against the base of the channel it was “bobbing” the entire time.

All 46 passengers were rescued about three hours after the grounding by a local fire and rescue boat crew. There were no injuries.

Belle of Topsail was about 40 minutes into its two-hour dinner cruise when an engine component blew and nearly all of the engine oil escaped “in a huge spurt,” Luther said. The crew shut down the engine as a precaution.

Luther notified the Coast Guard of the incident and made arrangements for an employee to tow the stranded Belle back to its docks about a mile away with a 38-foot sport fishing boat. Luther said the Coast Guard would not allow that tow, and instead made him and the passengers wait nearly three hours for a 41-foot Coast Guard utility boat to arrive from Wrightsville Beach, N.C.

“They made a huge production of the situation and acted totally against the wishes of the captain,” he said.

Luther believes the Coast Guard’s decision to offload passengers, some of whom had been drinking, from his craft into smaller fire-rescue boats after dark was dangerous. The passengers were transferred from those smaller fire department vessels to the Coast Guard utility boat and the sport fishing boat Big Daddy and taken to shore.

“The solution would have been so simple, but they wouldn’t do it,” added Luther, who holds a 100-ton master’s license.

Lt. Lane Munroe, command center chief for Sector North Carolina, said the agency’s actions were conceived wholly with safety of the passengers in mind.

“Freeing a grounded and disabled vessel, and then towing it safely to port is never to be taken lightly, even under the most benign conditions,” he said in a written statement.

“The Coast Guard made decisions surrounding the Belle of Topsail casualty with these considerations in mind, to ensure that a stable situation did not become otherwise, and all passengers were returned safely ashore,” Munroe said.

Fire department emergency response boats ferried the passengers from Belle of Topsail to the larger boats near the middle of the channel due to shallow water, he said.

The accident occurred during a period of light winds of about 12 knots, and a small craft warning had been issued for the area.

The passengers were offloaded at Belle of Topsail’s docks around midnight. At that time, Big Daddy towed the disabled boat back to shore.

Luther, whose wife Sharon owns the vessel, said Belle of Topsail is about 29 years old and was built from a converted barge-style houseboat. They bought the 49-passenger vessel about six years ago after private companies operated it in Kentucky and Montana.

The Coast Guard declined to comment on the cause of the engine failure. Petty Officer 1st Class Brandyn Hill, who is stationed in Norfolk, Va., said the case was still under investigation.

The incident shelved Belle of Topsail for about 20 days while a new engine was installed. Luther said he replaced the former 109-hp Isuzu diesel engine after the oil leak. He has since installed a 150-hp Isuzu diesel engine.

Belle of Topsail has since passed a Coast Guard inspection and has resumed its cruises.

By Professional Mariner Staff