September 13, 2011

Charter boats running aground
raise safety concerns in harbor

Harbor officials want assurances that visitors who buy tours on charter boats have a 'safe and enjoyable stay.'

By David Hench
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — The Portland Harbor Commission wants to meet with charter boat operators to explore steps to improve safety in the harbor, in response to three groundings of charter boats in the past 13 months.

click image to enlarge

The Wendameen, top, and the Bagheera, both owned by the Portland Schooner Co., are seen under sail in Casco Bay recently. The boats have each run aground in the last two years, prompting discussion of safety and regulations by the Portland Harbor Commission.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

The Wendameen has run aground in Casco Bay twice this summer, with passengers brought back to land by the Portland Fire Boat.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

Opponents of changes say the problems of one company -- all three boats that ran aground are owned by Portland Schooner Co. -- should not trigger a wave of new regulation.

"We have a whole lot of regulations to adhere to and we don't need anyone else overseeing us, as far as I'm concerned," said Bill Frappier III, owner of Portland Discovery Land and Sea Tours, which operates three tour boats. "It comes down to owners assessing whether captains they hire are familiar with Casco Bay and the waters they navigate in."

The issue was raised at a recent meeting of the Portland Harbor Commission, the body that regulates moorings, docks and some other aspects of navigation in the harbor.

"The safety of the harbor is one of our charges," said Commission Chairman Thomas Dobbins. "We want a visitor that comes to have a safe and enjoyable stay."

Dobbins said the discussion does not necessarily mean the commission is planning new regulations.

"We're looking into why all of a sudden we have a couple, three (groundings) that happened. Are these just Murphy's Law, or something we should look at?" he said. "We want to bring in the tour boat people as stakeholders. We're not out to make regulations."

The panel plans to invite tour boat operators to a meeting later this month or in October, when the season is winding down, Dobbins said.

Harbor commissioners initiated a discussion about safety after the Wendameen, a 59-foot, two-masted charter schooner, ran aground for the second time this summer. Before that, the last time a charter boat had run aground was Aug. 8, 2010, when the Bagheera, listed at 88 feet, ran aground north of Fort Gorges.

The Bagheera and the Wendameen are owned by Portland Schooner Co. and operate from the Maine State Pier. The owner of Portland Schooner Co. did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.

Almost a dozen charter boats -- authorized to carry more than six passengers -- operate out of Portland Harbor. They are regulated by the Coast Guard, which ensures that they have proper safety gear, that the boat masters have the necessary credentials, and that the staffs are trained in emergency and day-to-day operations.

"What's left to the company to manage is, 'Does this person know the area?'" said Lt. Mason Wilcox, chief of the investigations division for the Coast Guard's Portland operation. "It's up to the company to ensure they hire an appropriate master that they feel is fit to operate in these waters."

Wilcox says it shouldn't be hard for an experienced sailor with Coast Guard credentials to avoid hitting bottom.

"If you follow the charts and technology that exists, you should not run aground," he said.

The Coast Guard, which investigates the groundings of charter boats, has not completed its review of the Wendameen's two incidents. Its report on the grounding of the Bagheera last year includes few details about the incident.

"The master of the vessel lost situational awareness and turned too early around the north side of Fort Gorges and ran aground," Wilcox said.

Most recently, the Wendameen, with 49 passengers on board, ran aground near Great Diamond Island, apparently drifting outside the marked channel and getting stuck in mud.

A month earlier, the Wendameen had hit a submerged but marked World War II-era wreck near Fort Gorges, officials said.

In both cases, the passengers were taken off the boat and brought to shore by the Portland Fire Boat. The Wendameen floated clear when the tide came in.

Wilcox said the Coast Guard's interest in any grounding of a charter vessel is to make sure the boat is safe to return to service, to find out what decisions by the ship's master might have contributed to the incident, and to prevent pollution from spoiling the ecosystem.

Frappier, the tour boat owner, said he has not been notified that the commission wants to meet with charter boat owners but he would be happy to meet.

"There would certainly be benefits to all of us sitting at a table, discussing what our training procedures are," he said. "That can be a great learning tool for everybody at the table."

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:


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