Fireboat officers suspended after vessel hits object outside channel

Officials in Portland, Maine, said training criteria for the city's fireboat crews are under review following a second navigational accident involving their newest vessel in less than two years. Disciplinary action was taken against both the pilot and fire captain.

The 65-foot City of Portland IV struck a submerged obstruction in Casco Bay at about 1800 on Oct. 15, 2011, said city spokeswoman Nicole Clegg. Damage to the vessel was on the port side and included a bent propeller, broken strut and shaft, bent rudder tube and damaged rudder.

The vessel hit the underwater obstruction north of Fort Gorges and outside the marked channel in an area known for such hazards to navigation — both charted and uncharted. The firefighter at the controls has been a pilot with the Portland Fire Department's Marine Division for six years and has been operating City of Portland IV since July 2009. The vessel's electronic chartplotter was up and running and paper charts were available for reference.

At the time of the accident, there were 14 people on board the vessel. Passengers were family and friends of the captain and were permitted on board because there was no policy prohibiting civilian passengers, Clegg said. The crew was conducting a regular exercise of the vessel and the guests were observers.

Following the accident, the vessel was able to return to dock under its own power using starboard side propulsion. The vessel was hauled for repairs in Rockland, Maine, on Oct. 26 and returned to service Nov. 23.

Repairs cost $54,000. The city's insurance on the boat carries a $25,000 deductible.

City of Portland IV was launched in September 2009 at a cost of $3.2 million. In November 2009, it grounded in Whitehead Passage, a channel between Peaks and Cushing islands in Casco Bay. A different crew was operating the vessel at that time.

The Oct. 15 accident was immediately reported to the on-duty deputy fire chief, but it was not reported to the U.S. Coast Guard until Oct. 19, Clegg said. In an e-mail to Professional Mariner, Clegg said it was an honest mistake that the Coast Guard was not notified immediately.

"The delay in reporting was simply due to a misunderstanding regarding the requirements for reporting (i.e. the department was not required to report the previous accident and as the fireboat returned under its own power, the department mistakenly assumed that a report was not necessary in this instance)," Clegg wrote. "As soon as the fire department was made aware of the need to report the incident to the Coast Guard, they were notified."

No action was taken by the Coast Guard against the city or the operators for not reporting the accident immediately.

"Technically, the incident should have been reported because the fireboat is a public vessel, but it is not out of the ordinary for something like this to go unreported," said Lt. Nick Barrow, a Coast Guard spokesman in South Portland.

Barrow said it is unclear exactly what the vessel hit. He said that it was definitely outside of the marked channel and in an area known for underwater obstructions. It appears that the vessel was traveling south to north when the accident occurred, but Barrow did not have precise course data.

The pilot and fire captain were both suspended without pay, the pilot for three days and the captain for 10 days. Both were suspended for failure to navigate appropriately by using all means available.

Clegg said that the disciplinary action taken against the pilot and fire captain is subject to appeal and that any action related to an appeal is confidential until a conclusion is reached. She said the city is reviewing training criteria for fireboat crews, and passengers are now prohibited from riding along without the city manager's permission.

During the summer of 2011, the Portland Schooner Co.'s 88-foot sailing vessel Wendameen strayed from the channel and struck an underwater obstruction in the same area.

By Professional Mariner Staff