One dead after storm ravages vessel

The Coast Guard rescued two people by helicopter Monday, May 12, when the research boat they were on broke apart and took on water about 14 miles off the coast of Rehoboth Beach, Del. One crewman was pronounced dead Monday after reaching the hospital, reportedly having been trapped under debris below-deck as the ship listed to one side. The abandoned vessel later beached itself on the shore in Bethany Beach, off Parkwood Street.

Coastal Point • Shaun Lambert: The Russell W. Peterson beaches at Bethany Beach on Monday, May 12, after the vessel’s engine failed during the powerful storm that hit the Mid-Atlantic region earlier this week.Coastal Point • Shaun Lambert
The Russell W. Peterson beaches at Bethany Beach on Monday, May 12, after the vessel’s engine failed during the powerful storm that hit the Mid-Atlantic region earlier this week.

According to the Coast Guard, the two people were aboard the research boat Russell W. Peterson when its engine failed Monday morning. They activated their electronic positioning indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) and reported the boat was breaking up and taking on water approximately 14 miles off the coast.

The Coast Guard released a helicopter from their Atlantic City, N.J., station after “mayday” calls from the captain came in at 7:55 a.m. Monday morning, noted Coast Guard Petty Officer Chris McLaughlin.

“The helicopter lowered a rescue swimmer to the vessel, and brought up the crew member and captain,” he said.

The crew member, who was not showing vital signs, and the captain were admitted to Peninsula General Hospital in Salisbury, Md., where the crewman was later declared dead. The captain was reportedly released from the hospital on Tuesday.

“The Coast Guard is continuing investigation to determine what caused the ship to take on water,” McLaughlin said. “In the mayday message that came in, the captain said that one of his engines was fouled. He had been at helm, trying to drive the boat, but they were pretty much stuck there.

“There’s not a lot you can do when one of your engines fails,” McLaughlin added. The damaged vessel was beached on the shore near Parkwood Street in Bethany Beach mid-day on Monday. What, if any, additional damage to the vessel occurred had not been determined mid-week.

Reports showed overcast conditions that morning, with a visibility of 3 miles, and 17-foot swells.

“It’s hard to maintain control on a boat that size when conditions are like that,” said McLaughlin. “They already had water on board, and waves were breaking over the deck of the vessel.”

According to McLaughlin, advisories were broadcast to mariners periodically on Monday morning by the weather service. A media release also was aired, warning of gale-force winds, while gusts onshore clocked in at 60 mph. Boaters had been advised to seal loose cargo.

Securing and removal process under way

The University of Delaware has contracted Delmarva Salvage Company to assist Tow Boat U.S. in the removal of the vessel from the Bethany shoreline.

On Tuesday, McLaughlin noted, there had been reports of slight sheening of the water from fluids from the vessel, but nothing “detrimental or a serious impact to the environment.”

Tow Boat U.S. representatives were already on-site Monday, as the storm continue to rage, to help contain any environmental hazards and begin securing the vessel for salvage.

“Basically, when it’s safe enough, we have to mitigate the pollution, and then, eventually, what we’ll end up doing is getting the vessel off the beach,” said Clark Droney, a representative with Tow Boat U.S., on Monday.

Droney said major concerns about the stranding included possible environmental impacts from oil and fuel onboard.

“It has diesel fuel and hydraulic oil on it right now, and right now, it’s OK. Obviously, it isn’t safe to do anything now,” he noted Monday afternoon, moments after the vessel made its way onto Bethany’s shore. “But once the tide gets out and it’s safe to work, then we’ll start taking all the fuel, all the lubricants and petroleum products off the vessel. We have to restore the water pipe integrity and get all the water out to make it seaworthy again.”

Tow Boat U.S. is responsible for covering boat accidents and salvage from Bowers Beach, Del., down to the Maryland line, at Fenwick Island, and was thus contracted for work in Bethany Beach.

“I haven’t seen a storm do something like this in years,” said Droney, a Millville resident who has been with Tow Boat U.S. since 1991.

Although pinpointing the exact timeline for removing a vessel of this size from the beach, given the current weather conditions, is no easy task, Droney was able to narrow it down at least a bit on Monday.

“It could take days, but for us to get a tide where we could possibly get it off… It’s too big to get off by land,” he said. “We’d have to get it back out into the water. It could take a couple weeks before we get it off. For now, we’re going to secure it and make it safe. … It’s hard to say how long it would take before it’s back out there.”

Droney and other Tow Boat U.S. workers were out on the vessel on Wednesday afternoon, pumping out the boat’s interior compartments of water, sand and oil. Main exterior components of the vessel, including its radar, were removed prior to pumping, to allow for easier maneuverability, noted Droney’s wife, Carol, who also works with Tow Boat U.S.

“The game plan is to get a tug boat out here and pull the boat off the beach this weekend,” she said.

“In a perfect world,” Clark Droney told the Coastal Point on Wednesday afternoon, from inside the beached vessel, “the tug boat would be out here [on Thursday], but it looks like it’s going to be Friday, now, which is still sooner than we expected.”

The mixture of sand, water and oil was pumped into two 25,000 gallon tanks, in effort to preserve the environment and lighten the craft.

“We can’t pump this stuff overboard,” emphasized Clark Droney. “It’s just a matter of getting everything into these tanks.”

In the meantime, the beached ship became an attraction for visitors and residents alike, drawing dozens at a time to the very edge of the damaged beach walkways near Parkwood Street on Tuesday. The town closed off the boardwalk south of Hollywood Street to Oceanview Parkway, with only the salvage workers permitted access to the beach walkway leading directly to the ship. They also closed off the beach walkways elsewhere in the town, keeping onlookers on the landward side of the dune and away from the dune drop-off and grounded ship.

Liftboat crew was surveying bird migration

The Russell W. Peterson was only dedicated in late March of 2008. Operated by Aqua Survey Inc., it was researching bird migration off the area’s coast, in preparation for the possible implementation of the wind-farm project planned by Bluewater Wind.

Kenneth Hayes, president of Aqua Survey Inc., issued a brief comment on the accident when contacted by the Coastal Point on Tuesday. “We are grieving the loss of a colleague and working with both federal and state agencies to salvage the vessel,” he said. Neither Aqua Survey nor the Coast Guard would release additional information on the identities of the crew members.

According to Aqua Survey’s Web site (, the Russell W. Peterson is a 65-foot, self-propelled liftboat with three 70-foot legs. It was built in Louisiana and had been used to provide services to oil production platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.

“Liftboats, as the name implies, have the ability to lift out of the water via hydraulically-operated jacking legs. The R/V Peterson became an important member of the Aqua Survey fleet of research and survey vessels in February 2008,” the Web site relates. “The vessel has a massive deck, 10-ton crane, state-of-the-art electronics, sleeps eight, has a full galley and complete bathroom facilities. The R/V Peterson will be used offshore to support responsible wind energy park development by providing environmental (e.g., avian surveys) and geotechnical (e.g., drilling/cone penetrometer studies) services.”