Historic tugboat sinks off Maine coast during Coast Guard tow

Capt. Mackintire

Two tugboats collided off Maine during a fuel transfer, and one of them later sank while under tow by a U.S. Coast Guard cutter.

Crew aboard the 40-foot Helen Louise reported the collision with the 80-foot Capt. Mackintire at 1441 on Feb. 21. Helen Louise was towing the unmanned tug when the two vessels made contact south of Cape Neddick, near the New Hampshire border.

The Coast Guard cutter Reef Shark brought Capt. Mackintire under tow early the next morning. The 74-year-old tug began taking on water and sank soon afterward near Kennebunkport.

Coast Guard spokeswoman Chellsey Phillips from Sector Northern New England said investigators are still trying to determine the cause of the initial accident and what led the tug to sink.

The 750-hp Capt. Mackintire is a former U.S. Army tug built in 1944. Since then, the single-screw vessel has changed names and owners many times.

The Eastport (Maine) Port Authority acquired the tug in 2012 from Winslow Marine of Falmouth, Maine. The port authority used it for ship assist and other work until selling it in December 2014 to a private party who planned to use it as a houseboat, according to Port Director Chris Gardner.

“It was a tired old tug,” Gardner said of the decision to sell. “It had reached the limit of what we wanted to use it for (for commercial purposes).”

After the sale, tugboats towed Capt. Mackintire to a boatyard in midcoast Maine. Gardner lost track of the tug over time. He believes it was not in the water for much of the time since the port authority sold it.

Phillips said Capt. Mackintire recently changed hands again. Helen Louise was towing the tug from Rockland, Maine, to Annapolis, Md., when the collision occurred. Few details are available surrounding the fuel transfer and subsequent impact.

Coast Guard vessels based in Boston and Portsmouth, N.H., reached the accident scene soon after the distress call from Helen Louise. Reef Shark got Capt. Mackintire under tow and planned to take it to Portland. The vessels got only as far as Kennebunkport before the tug swamped. Crew on the cutter severed the towline and the tug sank rapidly.

Coast Guard spokeswoman Cynthia Oldham, based in Boston, said cutting the towline “was safest for the Coast Guard cutter and crew.” The tug sank in 158 feet of water about three miles offshore.

Helen Louise proceeded under Coast Guard escort to Portsmouth, N.H., after the incident. It was not clear if the vessel was damaged. Its two crewmembers were not injured, the Coast Guard said.

Capt. Mackintire had about 4,500 gallons of fuel on board when it sank. The tug also carried eight fuel drums with up to 7,500 gallons of diesel that have not been recovered. Light sheening was initially seen in the area where the tug sank.

As of early March, contractors hired by the Coast Guard were still searching for the vessel and were considering options for raising it.

“We will continue using side-scan sonar and a remote-operated vehicle to assess the vessel,” Phillips said. “Information gathered from those assessments will help us develop a plan regarding potential salvage.”

The tug’s new owner has not been identified. Additional information on Helen Louise could not be found.

By Professional Mariner Staff