GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

March 30, 2009

Close call for fishing boats, barge

Fishermen avert collision they say recalled Patriot

By Richard Gaines

The high seas collision that didn't happen, didn't happen about dawn Saturday.

It was then that a barge pushed by a tug and operating without radar emerged from a "black thick of fog" just past Thacher Island into a flotilla of day-fishing boats, local fishermen said yesterday.

The tug and the barge were within shouting distance of two boats — Bill Lee's Ocean Reporter and Paul Theriault's Terminator — both about 40 feet long and trawling for the tantalizing spring influx of haddock with the federal closing of the inshore waters just days away at the end of the month.

Theriault said he avoided a collision by throwing his motor into neutral and giving the wench motor full power.

In those conditions, instead of wenching the trawl net into the boat, the boat — which has less drag than the net and trawl doors on the bottom — tends to slide backward briefly, just enough to allow the 130-foot-long, 40-foot-wide barge, pushed by a 30-foot tug, to ease past.

"We could have had a conversation," said Greg Bashaw, who was on the bridge of the tug navigating by sight through the fog and past the boats.

A licensed tug captain and assistant project manager, Bashaw said the tug left Boston about 11:30 p.m. Friday, gambling that the calm seas would allow his company, C. White Marine Inc., to fulfill a delayed commitment and get a crane to Newburyport where it was needed for an emergency bridge repair job.

"There were 20 boats in the area," said Lee, who was trawling alongside Theriault about 6:30 a.m. "It was very foggy. We were all on the radio with each other. One boat says, 'A barge just went by pushed by a tug, with a guy on the roof.'

"All of a sudden," Lee continued, "Out of the fog it comes — aiming right for Paul Theriault's Terminator. He tries to call him on Channel 16 (the emergency frequency). Everybody is listening and watching and all of a sudden the tug changes course and turns toward me, and I said, 'No way he can avoid hitting me.'

"It was a bad situation," Lee said. "Paul is asking their intentions, there was no response on the radio, I grabbed a life jacket, he had a choice of hitting him or hitting me.

"He made a u-turn right between us and vanished into the fog," Lee said.

"When I tried to call the tug on Channel 16," said Theriault, "the Coast Guard came on, and they were scolding me to tell me I wasn't hailing or in distress."

"I can't talk to the captain of the tug while he's bearing down on me?" he asked incredulously.

Over the radio, Theriault said the incident reminded him of the Jan. 3 sinking of the Patriot, a day boat that went down about 15 miles to the southwest on Middle Bank, losing the captain, Matteo Russo and his crew member and his father-in-law, John Orlando.

"It was on everybody's mind," Theriault said yesterday.

The Coast Guard's probe into the cause of the Patriot's demise has focused on a tug-and-barge tandem that were reportedly in the area of the fishing boat at that time.

In the Patriot case, the Coast Guard did not respond immediately to the request for search and rescue by Josie Russo, the captain's wife and business partner and Orlando's daughter. Coast Guard Sector Boston had trouble operating the VMS or vessel monitoring system which automatically feeds hourly coordinate "pings" into a computer inside the National Marine Fisheries Service that the Coast Guard uses for law enforcement and is obligated to know how to use for search and rescue.

Even after the last VMS from the Patriot was read, the Coast Guard still delayed for more than two hours before launching a full search and rescue effort. The bodies were found.

The Coast Guard last week said it had no information about its twin investigations.

One is into the delayed response and the other, the cause. But soon after the sinking, Capt. Gail Kulisch, commander of Sector Boston, announced that a tug pulling a barge had been in the vicinity of the Patriot and had surrendered its tow cable to the Coast Guard for a forensic analysis.

The Coast Guard said it could not say when either investigation would be complete and the findings made public. In the days after the sinking, Kulisch told a news conference she thought the internal investigation into the response could be finished and released in a matter of three weeks.

Coast Guard Sector Boston said it could not comment on Saturday's near collision until it reviewed the audio and written records from the day.

Bashaw said, "I can understand the concerns of the fishermen," but said he was a bit offended to be lectured about the Patriot.

On Saturday morning, as the tug pressed through the fog, pushing the barge with the big crane, the radar was sacrificed to the roughening of the seas and the crane was lowered to lower the center of gravity on the barge.

But the horizontal crane pointed into the wheel house and effectively interrupted the operation of the radar.

Bashaw said when the train left Boston, the tug was pulling the barge but with the loss of visibility, he said he decided to push rather than pull to eliminate the risk of the long connection by cable.

A deck hand was sent to the bow to help with the visual navigation — and the deck hand was Dominic Orlando, the son of the late mate of the Patriot, and brother of Patriot co-owner Josie Russo. Orlando declined comment.

"We weren't ignorant (of the Patriot)," said Bashaw. "Dominic was on lookout in the bow. He was the first one to see the fishing trawler. We were very worried about going in there."

Richard Gaines can be reached at rgaines@gloucestertimes.com