The U.S. Coast Guard is investigating two separate groundings this past summer involving a commercial sailing schooner near Portland, Maine.
The commercial schooner Wendameen aground on a shoal in Maine's Casco Bay on July 30, the vessel's second grounding of the 2011 season. (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)
The 88-foot Wendameen, a two-masted wooden vessel owned by Portland Schooner Co., was carrying 23 passengers and four crew when it ran up onto a charted shipwreck on June 4 in Casco Bay, said Lt. Nick Barrow of Coast Guard Sector Northern New England.
Nearly two months later, on July 30, Wendameen ran aground again in another part of Casco Bay while carrying 49 passengers and three crew. In this incident, Barrow said the vessel ran onto a charted shoal a few hundred feet from one of the bay's major islands.
Portland Deputy Fire Chief David Jackson said crews on fireboat Marine 1 on June 4 were returning to shore after conducting training operations when they noticed Wendameen "sitting funky in the water." Moments later, they heard the distress calls go out on the radio.
"It ended up sitting on top of a wreck, and when the tide went out, it started listing," Jackson said.
After the stranded passengers donned life vests, Coast Guard personnel helped evacuate them to a police boat. (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)
The wreck occurred at 1740 a few hundred feet north-northeast of Fort Gorges on the west side of Little Diamond Island, near the entrance to Portland Harbor. Winds and seas were calm when the grounding occurred. The tide was ebbing but still two hours before low tide, Barrow said.
Wendameen was touring Casco Bay when it rode up onto a wreck that authorities said is "well mapped" on nautical charts. There is no water-level obstruction marker above the wreck, which has a charted depth of 10 feet.
None of the passengers or crew were injured.
The shipwreck that snagged Wendameen is believed to be the remains of Edward J. Lawrence, the last six-masted schooner ever built. That 320-foot vessel, built in Maine in 1908, was purposely sunk in December 1925 in Portland Harbor between Fort Gorges and Little Diamond Island, according to the website wreckhunter.net.
Wendameen was designed by John Alden and built in 1912 in East Boothbay, Maine, and in its first few decades "saw a lot of sailing in the Great Lakes," said Scott Reischmann, owner of Portland Schooner Co., which was formed almost nine years ago. Wendameen has been part of the company's fleet since 2005.
"Eventually she was found on a mud bank in Connecticut by the former owner, Neal Parker, who restored her in the late 1980s," Reischmann said. The boat is certified by the Coast Guard to carry 48 passengers.
Barrow said the grounding "amounted to a (small-scale) mass-rescue operation." Crews from the Coast Guard, Portland Pilots, Portland Fire Department, the harbor master and Sea Tow responded.
"The incident is being investigated as a marine casualty, but not a serious marine incident," Barrow said, adding that the "causal factors are still under investigation."
Jackson said Portland Harbor is notorious for its ledges, obstructions and old wrecks. Inexperienced mariners or anyone not paying attention to a chart or their location "can run aground fairly easily," he said.
Smaller vessels operated by the harbor master and Sea Tow ferried passengers and non-essential personnel from the stranded schooner to Marine 1. The fireboat then carried the group to Maine State Pier, where both Marine 1 and Wendameen make port.
Jackson said a decision was made jointly to refloat the schooner at high-tide rather than trying to pull it off the wreck. That method proved successful: authorities said the boat was refloated by 2230 on June 4.
Wendameen was not damaged in the incident and was back in service the following day, said Reischmann, who would not discuss possible causes of the accident.
The July 30 grounding occurred "a couple hundred yards" north of Great Diamond Island at 1620 when it ran into a charted shoal with a charted depth of about 10 to 12 feet, Barrow said. Seas and winds were calm, and the weather was clear. The grounding occurred about an hour before low tide.
"It just hit a shoal and grounded," said Barrow.
All 49 passengers were offloaded from Wendameen onto Marine 1 and a 47-foot Coast Guard motor lifeboat. There were no injuries to passengers or crew.
Barrow said the vessel did not suffer significant damage and was refloated with the rising tide several hours later.
Reischmann said Wendameen passed an inspection and was back in service the following day.