High seas and gusting winds over the weekend prevented the safe removal of a 71-foot fishing boat that washed onto Norton Point Beach Saturday morning.
The unmanned New Bedford scalloper came ashore Saturday more than nine hours after the vessel ran aground on a sand bar near Wasque, necessitating a U.S. Coast Guard rescue of its three-man crew. Its presence - in close proximity to nesting least terns and piping plovers - raised concerns among beach managers about possible fuel spills. However Chris Kennedy, Islands regional director for The Trustees of Reservations, said he was told by the Coast Guard that the chances of an oil spill were minimized by the way the vessel sat, hard aground. Had the vessel been listing on its side the situation would have been more serious.
Also, the vessel was boarded yesterday and the estimate on the amount of fuel was lowered to 500 gallons, or roughly 4,000 pounds. Today a crew plans to use pumps and barrels to off-load the fuel. The next priority will be the boat's removal; it may be refloated in the days ahead.
The area around the vessel is currently closed to the public.
The old and scarred fishing vessel Midnight Rider and its crew first ran into trouble Friday at 10 p.m., about 2.2 miles southeast of Wasque. It is believed the vessel ran aground on or near the locally known navigational hazard called Skiff's Island. The Coast Guard was told by radio the vessel was hard aground and taking on water. They responded with a boat crew from both Woods Hole station and a second boat from Menemsha Station. The vessel grounded at 41 18.8N and 70 26.2W.
An HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter from Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod made the rescue at about 11:30 p.m. and hoisted the captain, Kevin Arrula, 40, along with Donald Bachand, 40, and Roy Lasham, 40, to safety. While the men were safely taken to dry land, the vessel was left where it sat. The rescue was completed in 35 minutes.
More than nine hours later, the red-painted and rusty vessel drifted toward Norton Point Beach and eventually came ashore.
Melinda Fager of Chappaquiddick and New Canaan, Conn., watched the fishing boat as it approached the shore at Norton Point Beach Saturday morning. She was sitting with her 14-year-old daughter, Charlotte.
"It was sideways to the shore. It just starting rocking back and forth. It was parallel to the beach. It rocked back and forth so much I thought it was going to flip over," Ms. Fager said.
Mr. Kennedy learned about the vessel by 9 o'clock on Saturday morning. "Our rangers on the beach saw the boat. David [Belcher] and I came upon the boat about an hour later. It was 100 yards off the beach at that point; that was shortly before the boat came ashore," Mr. Kennedy said.
The prospect of the boat's running ashore raised serious concerns about the environmental impact of the vessel coming apart on the beach.
"Our concerns were there was fuel on board and would it be leaking. The boat came ashore in absolutely the worst place on Norton Point Beach. It came ashore right in the middle of dozens of nesting least terns. There were four piping plover chicks within 100 yards of the hull," Mr. Kennedy said.
The vessel is about 1,000 feet west of the well-known fishing spot known as Metcalf's Hole, or about three-quarters of a mile west of Wasque.
Mike Popovich, a senior chief with the Southeastern New England Coast Guard station in Woods Hole (formerly known as Group Woods Hole) said the Coast Guard did a flyover Saturday morning to check out the status of the vessel and did see it adrift.
He said that on the night of the rescue, the Coast Guard told the captain of the vessel to hire a salvaging firm to recover the vessel. On Saturday afternoon two salvage tugs responded. Conrad Roy of Tucker-Roy Marine Towing and Salvage in Mattapoissett said the waters surrounding the fishing boat were too shallow and the waves too big to rescue the vessel on Saturday afternoon.
"We couldn't get a line to it," said Mr. Roy. There was also a visible sandbar about a 100 yards offshore which prevented access.
He had two boats try: a 100-foot tugboat R. Marcel Roy and a 57-foot tugboat Janice. "The small tug started hitting bottom," Mr. Roy said, so the effort was called off.
The salvage company did manage to remove the sea scallops from the fishing boat using a powerboat.
On Sunday morning, a day after the grounding, two personnel from the Coast Guard marine safety office on the Cape came to the scene with a representative from another contractor.
Kirk Franklin of Environmental Services Corp., in New Bedford, said he had been hired by the Coast Guard to remove the fuel onboard. Mr. Franklin said his priority was to get the fuel off the vessel and work with the Trustees to make sure that it was done in a safe way. At the time on Sunday, everyone thought there were 2,000 gallons of fuel onboard, based on a report given by the boat's owner.
High seas at South Beach and strong gusting winds continued for most of the day on Sunday, so boarding the vessel was not possible.
Mr. Popovich said yesterday that the contractor plans to remove the fuel by pumping it into 55-gallon barrels on the beach and transporting those barrels to a tank truck parked at Wasque.
Mr. Popovich said the priority now is to off-load the fuel, and then the next step will be the removal of the fishing boat which could take days. Weather is a serious concern and will determine how quickly they will be able to act.
Mr. Kennedy said: "Our primary concern is whether the hull were to break apart and have a fuel spill. Our next concern is the disposition of the hull. That is the $64,000 question."
Scott Carr, a spokesman for the Coast Guard First District Boston office, said the salvaging of the fishing boat has been federalized. He said the owner of the vessel does not have the economic means to cover the costs of the salvage of the vessel so the Coast Guard will take over.
Mr. Kennedy said there are some serious questions about the whole incident. "The one question we have is what happened. We'd like to know the whole time frame of what happened. To be fair to the Coast Guard we want the salvage work to run its course and let them do their own investigation. Right now we want the fuel taken care of and the boat taken care of."
Mr. Popovich confirmed that there is an internal investigation into how the unoccupied fishing vessel made its way onto the beach. "Obviously there is an ongoing investigation. Lieut. Eric Brown of our prevention department is doing it," Mr. Popovich said.
Mr. Carr said the Coast Guard is also investigating the circumstances that surrounded the call for help. At the time the winds were southwest at 19 knots and seas were four feet.
Skiff's Island is a sand bar that comes and goes with the seasons. Sometimes the island is high and dry. Other times the island is a sandbar well below the surface. In the winter it can be high enough out of the water to be a home for seals.