Salvage Captain: Whale-watching Boat Split Down the Keel

(NECN: Peter Howe, Salisbury/Chelsea, Mass.) - Tugboat and salvage crews on Monday towed the "Massachusetts" to drydock for repairs after the whale-watching boat ran aground Saturday with 174 passengers and crew on board.

New details of the rescue emerged from salvage captain Mike Goodridge of Towboat U.S. Boston, which deployed several crews and a scuba diver to inspect the boat and pump it out Saturday, saving the "Massachusetts" from sinking. His first crews arrived in minutes, landing just as passengers were still being evacuated by the Coast Guard and local police.

"It was close to going down, no question about it,'' Goodridge said in an interview at the Salisbury marina where he is based. "We had 12 or 15 feet of water in the vessel.''

His diver confirmed the boat suffered massive damage. "It was split down the keel. There was gouges down the centerline of the vessel, splits, peeled-back aluminum. There were some fairly heavy gashes.'' He confirmed the boat probably requires hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs.

While the 168 passengers and six crew got off safely, Goodridge said: This came close to disaster. "We had water. The two forward compartments were totally flooded.'' After wrangling with the Coast Guard over what he described as "bureaucratic red tape," Goodridge and his crews deployed 10 pumps, enough to blast 2,500 gallons a minute out of the "Massachusetts."

By about 10:30 p.m. Saturday night, it was towed in to the Fitzgerald Shipyard in Chelsea, and late Monday afternoon, tug crews moved it over to a drydock for repairs.

Weekdays, the Massachusetts Bay Lines boat serves Hingham-to-Boston water-ferry commuters. MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said by e-mail that the ferry service contractor has a replacement ready for service Tuesday.

After playing a key role pumping out the "Massachusetts" and helping get it back to Chelsea, one thing Goodridge is still mystified about: How did the captain go so far off course?

Numerous buoys mark the treacherous undersea ledge called Devil's Back, which is just one foot below the surface of the water at low tide. Goodridge said his company has saved recreational boaters who've landed on the rocks, but he remained astonished a professional ferry captain had hit it.

"The channel's really well marked. All the green buoys mark the ledges on that side of the channel,'' Goodridge said. "There's not a lot of area that he could hit, but he just happened to hit right on the top of it. Right on the top of it."

What's next: Hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of repairs for the Massachusetts, and a Coast Guard investigation -- including drug and alcohol tests for the boat's crew -- that will likely take months to come up with an answer: What happened to the "Massachusetts" Saturday?

With videographer John J. Hammann

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