Tug crew praised for rescuing sailors following collision with schooner

A tugboat and sailboat collided in the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal, causing the 96-year-old schooner to sink in a matter of moments.

The weather was calm at about 0330 on May 14 when the 71-foot tug Schuylkill collided with Heron, a 45-foot wooden sailboat built in 1911 and home ported in Port Monmouth, N.J. There was only a slight easterly current when the accident occurred, according to the Coast Guard. Heron was pushing a fuel barge at the time.

Crewmembers from Schuylkill jumped in the water and rescued Heron’s three crewmembers, none of whom were wearing life jackets, according to Coast Guard reports.

“They were right there and really stepped in and did a great job,” Sgt. Kenneth B. Turner, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Police, said of the Schuylkill crew.

The three were transported to Union Memorial Hospital in Elkton, Md., with minor injuries, where they were treated and released.

Heron was traveling eastward and had been using engine power at the time of the crash, which took place just two miles west of Chesapeake City, Md.

Upon learning of the accident, the Coast Guard dispatched a rescue boat from Station Still Pond in Kent County, Md., and issued warnings to mariners. The Maryland State Police, Maryland Natural Resources Police, and a fire and rescue team from Cecil County, Md., also responded to the accident.

The Coast Guard closed the canal at 0335, holding up traffic in both directions on the 14-mile passage that links Chesapeake Bay with Delaware Bay. An electronically controlled commercial waterway, the C&D carries 40 percent of all ship traffic to and from the Port of Baltimore. It is also a frequently used shortcut between Philadelphia and Baltimore.

Smith Marine of Baltimore salvaged Heron from a depth of 36 feet on the day after the crash. The boat came up fairly easily, according to Capt. Robert Dempsey, who works with the contracting company. The Coast Guard reopened the canal to traffic at 1322.

“There was a fairly strong current in there, and it really came up fairly easily,” Dempsey said.

After raising Heron, Smith Marine pumped water out of the boat, placed it on a crane barge and transported it to a mooring in Baltimore.

Kevin Smith, superintendent of Smith Marine’s shipyard, said Heron suffered damage to the hull, two broken masts and broken rigging. He noted that the boat’s skylights and companionway were open, although he did not venture a guess what may have caused Heron to sink.

“When you look at the thing, you think they were pretty lucky to get out alive,” Smith said.

The Coast Guard is still investigating the accident.

By Professional Mariner Staff