Maine fireboat runs aground on return from rescue mission

Officials in Portland, Maine, said they will discipline personnel after the city’s new fire-and-rescue boat was seriously damaged in a grounding upon a submerged ledge.

The 65-foot City of Portland grounded in Casco Bay during a rescue call at about 1730 on Nov. 7, 2009, said Fire Chief Frederick LaMontagne. The vessel’s rudder stock was driven into the hull, causing flooding. The boat also needed repairs to a strut and propeller.

The boat had responded to an emergency call on Jewell Island, the city’s outermost island, a trip of about 45 minutes. The call was to assist a man who had fallen into the water and was becoming hypothermic.

Also responding were two firefighters in a 20-foot aluminum skiff, plus a 25-foot U.S. Coast Guard rescue boat and the Maine Marine Patrol. During the lengthy rescue call, the vessels struggled with an astronomical low tide. While returning to Portland Harbor for additional equipment and personnel, City of Portland ran aground on a submerged ledge in Whitehead Passage, a narrow cut between Peaks and Cushing islands. The boat draws 4 feet.

The accident occurred between Whitehead Passage Buoy 6 and Whitehead Ledge Daybeacon 3, which marks a ledge and the green side of the channel. The width of the channel between the daybeacon and the buoy is approximately 300 feet.

However, the fact that the ledge extends about 120 feet into the channel and is only 5 feet deep at mean low water makes navigating the pass tricky. The Coast Guard urges mariners to sail closer to the buoy than to the daymarker.

“Never go near a daymark,” said Chief Sean Walsh, head of Coast Guard Sector Northern New England’s Aids to Navigation Team. “Buoys always mark good water, and it makes sense to err on the side of caution and stay near the buoy.”

As a result of an internal investigation, city officials decided that disciplinary action was warranted, said Nicole Clegg, a spokeswoman for the city. Clegg described the accident as an “incident that could have been avoided.”

Walsh confirmed that all aids to navigation were on station and functioning properly.

There were no breakdowns to navigation electronics or other equipment aboard City of Portland. LaMontagne said the firefighter in command of the boat “had good local knowledge and 20 years of experience on the bay.” Clegg said the firefighter holds a Coast Guard 100-ton license and near-coastal and auxiliary-sail privileges, although such credentials are not required to operate the fireboat.

The chief said the vessel’s design probably prevented greater damage. “The shaft savers released. … The design really paid off,” LaMontagne said.

Following the grounding, the Fire Department’s other boat, M/V Cavallaro, towed City of Portland back to a local shipyard. Neither the Coast Guard nor the fire department would provide details on the cause of the accident or the pending disciplinary action.

Walsh said that the Coast Guard is not investigating the grounding. When asked what he thought caused the grounding, Walsh said, “He probably just lost his focus and wasn’t paying attention.”

City of Portland, launched in July 2009, was built by A.F. Theriault & Son, in Meteghan River, Nova Scotia, at a cost of $3.2 million. The repair estimate is likely to be more than $90,000, city officials said. The city’s insurance on the boat carries a $25,000 deductible.

John Snyder

By Professional Mariner Staff