BREAKING NEWS: Research vessel beaches at Bethany, one crewman dead

The Coast Guard rescued two people by helicopter Monday 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. The abandoned vessel later beached itself on the shore in Bethany Beach, off Parkwood Street.

Research vessel beaches in Bethany Beach: A research vessel beached in Bethany Beach during the ongoing storm on Monday, May 12. Two people were on board when the vessel started breaking apart and taking on water. Both crewmembers were safely transported from the ship to a hospital in Salisbury, Coastal Point photo • SHAUN LAMBERT
A research vessel beached in Bethany Beach during the ongoing storm on Monday, May 12. Two people were on board when the vessel started breaking apart and taking on water. Both crewmembers were transported from the ship to a hospital in Salisbury, Md., where one was later pronounced dead.
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, whose current condition was unknown Tuesday, were admitted to Peninsula General Hospital in Salisbury, Md., where the crewman was later declared dead.

“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 Garfield Parkway in Bethany Beach mid-day on Monday. What, if any, additional damage to the vessel occurred has not been determined at this time.

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. Boaters had been advised to seal loose cargo.

Securing and removal process beginning

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.

As of 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 on-site Monday 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 Beach. “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.”

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., commented 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."

According to Aqua Survey’s Web site (, the Russell W. Peterson is a 65-foot, self-propelled lift-boat 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.”

Coastal Point News Editor M. Patricia Titus contributed to this story. Pick up this week’s issue of the Coastal Point on May 16 and stay tuned to for further information and photographs from this week’s storm.