NEWBURYPORT — For a few dramatic moments on July 5, an assistant harbormaster said he was trapped under the overturned patrol boat he and a colleague had been aboard before it flipped in choppy water at Plum Island Point, according to a report released Tuesday by the city.
The assistant harbormaster, Adam R. Hayden, said in his report the July 5 accident occurred when the men were trying to steer away from a dock. The report was given to The Daily News, a sister paper of the Times, after a request to Mayor Donna Holaday.
In the report, Hayden said he momentarily got stuck under the 22-foot-long Whaler Guardian patrol vessel.
"As I attempted to swim out from under the center console, I became stuck between the railing and the side of the hull (gunwale). I then backed out of the railing and pushed down and followed the light to the surface," Hayden wrote.
Moments earlier, Hayden had lost sight of his partner, Dave Willey, and couldn't find him.
"Once in the water I was unable to move due to the restriction of the hydrostatic life vest I was wearing," Hayden said, referring to a life vest made to inflate under water pressure. "I removed the vest and grabbed on to part of the boat and pulled myself up to locate an air pocket. In doing this I hit my head causing an abrasion to the top of my scalp along with other bruises to my head. While taking a few deep breaths, I quickly scanned the pitch-dark area for Dave. I could not locate him and decided to exit," Hayden wrote.
Willey was spotted by Good Samaritans who pulled him and Hayden out of the water. Both men sustained minor injuries and were transported by Cataldo Ambulance Service to Anna Jaques Hospital in Newburyport.
Before being placed in an ambulance, Hayden said he tied the patrol boat to the dock. It's then that he saw why the boat had suddenly taken on water.
"Once secured, I looked over the boat and noticed the dive door (used as an access point for divers to enter and exit the water from the boat) was missing. A member of the Coast Guard who was on the scene pointed to the door which was floating near the docks and someone else took hold of it and laid it on the docks. I then knew why we had taken on water much quicker than if it was to flood from backing into the current," Hayden wrote in his report.
The boat was eventually towed to a nearby marina by a TowBoatUs crew. At this stage it's not known whether the boat can be repaired or have to be replaced.
In a Wednesday email, Holaday wrote that the city was in a holding pattern regarding the vessel's future.
"They are reviewing the extent of the damage, with motor electrical water infiltration, could be a total loss," Holaday wrote.
A Coast Guard official told The Daily News they did not file an incident report because the matter was under control by the time a 29-foot response boat arrived from Station Merrimack River in Newburyport.
Days after the accident, Holaday told The Daily News that due to the choppy waters and strong current, the boat's dive door became dislodged and flooded it with enough water to capsize the center console vessel.
But Joseph Cohen, one of several people who saw the accident from a private beach, said it was the aggressiveness of the pilot that led to the boat capsizing. Cohen said the operator did not back out gently, but instead gunned the engine and hit the dock.
"It wasn't like he was trying to finesse his way out of there," Cohen said, adding that the strong current was a factor as well.
Holaday disputed Cohen's assessment and defended the harbormasters.
"I have no reason to believe they acted anything but professionally," Holaday said, earlier this month.
Water in the bilge
Trouble began around 2 p.m. that day when Willey and Hayden climbed aboard the patrol vessel to untie and leave the dock at Plum Island Point.
"We were at that location to inspect the beach at Plum Island, the parking lot and check on the attendants there. We had tied up on the southernmost inside dock facing north (this location was the safest and most out of the way possible, considering the party boats and charters that frequent that dock," Hayden wrote.
Hayden put the boat into forward and turned the wheel to port to kick out the stern so he could safely back up against the current – "a maneuver I have practiced hundreds of times."
"Right away, I could feel the handling becoming sluggish and abnormal, so I looked back and there was a lot of water in the bilge compartment just behind the motor and observed a large amount in the boat as well," Hayden wrote.
Knowing they were taking on water, Hayden put the Whaler into forward and turned the wheel to starboard toward the beach to avoid hitting the dock. Hayden also hoped getting motion behind the vessel would purge water from the bilge.
"After doing this I could feel a massive shift in weight as the water continued to enter the boat to the now right (starboard) side. The boat listed hard to starboard and I could hear the propeller come out of the water. I put the boat into neutral to avoid a ‘run away boat’. The boat was laying on its right side and I was holding on to the console to remain in the boat," Hayden wrote. "After a few seconds the current had pushed the boat back to the dock and the hull of the boat made contact with the pillars or pilings, and it is my opinion that this as well as the flooded deck, caused the boat to overturn and capsize."