Venerable icebreaking workboat sinks at its slip in Milwaukee

Harbor Seagull

In the early morning hours of Feb. 22, Port of Milwaukee harbor master Wayne Johnson got a phone call he wasn’t expecting. The port’s 60-year-old workboat, Harbor Seagull, had sunk at its slip in about 20 feet of water.

Harbor Seagull
A crane lifts Harbor Seagull from the Kinnickinnic River on Feb. 23.

“When I got that call … my heart went up into my throat,” he said. “To see her on the bottom was very heartbreaking.”

Adam Tindall-Schlicht, director of the Port of Milwaukee, said Harbor Seagull began taking on water late on Feb. 21 or early on Feb. 22, eventually sinking at about 0530 in the Kinnickinnic River. Dock lines kept the boat from drifting away from the seawall. 

Personnel at the port responded quickly, collaborating with the U.S. Coast Guard, the Wisconsin Department of Environmental Protection and other agencies. An oil boom was deployed to contain residual spilled fuel.

“The immediacy of the response of our operations team prevented any sort of environmental degradation as a result of the sinking,” Tindall-Schlicht said.

The 44-foot Harbor Seagull had spent 10 hours breaking ice in Milwaukee Harbor on Feb. 20. The boat is capable of punching through ice up to 18 inches thick at a speed of 10 knots. 

On Feb. 23, a diver attached chains to lifting points on the workboat, and Michels Corp. of Milwaukee used a 300-ton crane on a barge to hoist the vessel to a position where pumps could be used to empty it. 

As of mid-March, the cause of the sinking had not been determined. “We are taking our time and analyzing all possibilities,” Tindall-Schlicht said. There was no structural damage to Harbor Seagull’s hull, and Johnson said that when he looked at security camera recordings, it appeared that the boat went down quickly.

Harbor Seagull was built in 1961 by T.D. Vinette Co. of Escanaba, Mich. In addition to icebreaking, the boat is used for lifting and setting navigation buoys, towing and spring cleanups. It has a 2-ton hydraulic crane to pick up trees and other large debris. It also has a fire monitor capable of throwing 500 gallons of water per minute up to 200 feet. 

“We are cautiously optimistic that with the ongoing work we are doing, we will be able to repair her in 2021,” Johnson said. 

Estimates for the repairs run between $200,000 and $300,000. The work will include substantial upgrades that the port had already been planning for the vessel. A replacement could cost as much as $1 million. 

Johnson, for one, is in no hurry to see Harbor Seagull replaced. “She has been the primary workboat in Milwaukee Harbor for decades,” he said. “She has an emotional connection throughout the community.”

By Professional Mariner Staff