PORTLAND —  Portland’s Board of Harbor Commissioners met with representatives of the city’s charter boat industry Thursday to explore steps that could be taken to improve safety in the harbor following the groundings of three vessels over the past 15 months.

Commissioners invited 70 charter boat, water taxi service, cruise and whale watch operators to Thursday night’s forum, but the owner of Portland Schooner Co., which was involved in all three groundings, could not attend. Only half of those invited came.

There was no discussion of the accident involving the City of Portland IV, the fireboat that was damaged when it struck something under water on Oct. 15.

Commissioners took public comment for 90 minutes before adjourning and planning to meet again in January.

They indicated they were interested in developing a training system that would have veteran ship captains mentor other captains who are new to Portland Harbor. Commissioners said having charter operators police themselves and share their navigational knowledge with ship captains would be their preferred solution.

“What can we do to help everyone get the knowledge they need to be a good skipper or captain?” asked commissioner Bert Jongerden.

Harbor commissioners began the discussion about safety after the Wendameen, a 59-foot, two-masted charter schooner, ran aground twice last summer. The Bagheera, listed at 88 feet, ran aground in August 2010. Both schooners are owned by Portland Schooner Co.

Jeff Liick, the city’s harbormaster, said he invited the owner of the Portland Schooner Co. to Thursday’s meeting but was informed that he could not attend.

Commissioners said the burden of hiring competent captains who are familiar with the harbor’s navigational challenges ultimately falls on charter boat operators.

“I think it all comes down to the owner to make the call,” said Commissioner Bill Van Voorhis.

Thomas Dobbins, who chairs the board, said putting an end to vessel groundings is not just a safety issue.

He said recreational boating magazines across the country have picked up media reports about the groundings, which he said could tarnish the harbor’s reputation as a tourist destination.

“That’s the reputation Portland will get if this keeps up,” Dobbins said.

Some operators don’t think the city is doing enough.

Others want the city to keep its distance.

Capt. James Harkins, operator of Atlantic Adventures, a deep-sea fishing charter service, said he believes there is a need for more enforcement and, if necessary, more drastic steps to “get the incompetent captains out of the wheelhouse.”

“How long is it going to be before we have a serious hull breach, before we have passengers in the water,” Harkins asked. “We’re lucky … these groundings haven’t been more serious.”

Fred Latta, operator of the Odyssey Whale Watch, said the commission should not intervene because the problem is not widespread.

Latta said groundings occur in harbors across the country.

“Unless you remove human error, these things are going to happen,” Latta told the commissioners.

Lt. Mason Wilcox, chief of the investigations division for the Coast Guard’s Portland operation, said the Coast Guard would like to see operators and the commission reach an amicable solution.

“We don’t want to be punitive,” Wilcox said. “We’re not in the business of pulling (captain’s) licenses. We don’t want to be taking money out of peoples’ pockets.”

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

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