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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Portland Fire Boat Runs Aground

The Portland Press Herald has run a couple of stories about the new $3.2 million fire boat going aground during the rescue attempt of a stranded mariner on Saturday, November 7. I use the term mariner lightly because there's some question as to what the victim and his wife were doing out around Jewell Island. Was he bird hunting out of a kayak or taking a leisurely paddle with his wife in a canoe? Apparently, nobody knows which. However, we do know that going to Jewell Island in November in a canoe or kayak is certainly no picnic cruise. Jewell sits at the outer edge of the Casco Bay archipelago. In other words, it's out there.

Sometime in the afternoon the victim and his wife ended up on Jewell Island suffering from hypothermia. They built a fire and called for help and the USCG and Portland fire boat responded. Two rescuers in a skiff made it to shore and attended to first aid but the tide was ebbing and before they knew it their skiff was high and dry. The fire boat turned around and headed back to Portland for additional manpower and equipment and it was on this return leg that they ran aground in Whitehead Passage between Peaks Island and Cushing Island.

The Portland Press Herald article makes it sound as if an insidious rock jumped off the bottom and took hold of the fireboat. But if you look at the chart you will see a clearly marked channel holding plenty of water (four to six fathoms) for a boat with a 4' draft, provided you don't run straight courses between markers.

Portland Fire Chief Fred LaMontagne said that they would be retracing the fireboat's course to determine what it was the boat hit -- to determine the precise location of any navigable hazards.

I think it's safe to assume the fireboat hit a rock or ledge. And I would further suggest that spending taxpayer money looking for an unmarked hazard is not as important as determining the piloting and/or navigation error that contributed to the grounding.

I'm also curious as to why the fireboat was dispatched in the first place. The Coast Guard and the Marine Patrol are tasked with these types of rescues, and it was the Marine Patrol that eventually completed the evacuation in a small boat. So why did the fireboat go? I can understand dispatching the fireboat in a "standby and assist if necessary role." But when you have a call for help from a man who is not physically in the water, who is on an island with almost no easy landing or access . . . unless the fire boat was out there because of the small fire the man reportedly had started. Anyway, I think the Fire Department owes it to the taxpaying public to look closely at their response to this emergency so that some specific emergency response parameters can be established for the future.

Incidentally, the man who was rescued didn't require hospital attention. He and his wife were dropped off at a marina by the Marine Patrol.

~seabgb