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Ian McColgin
02-28-2003, 12:38 PM
Not a wooden boat but still all too easy . . .

From the Cape Cod Times

Night of terror for scallopers hit by tanker

By ROBIN LORD
STAFF WRITER
CHATHAM - The elation of a promising scalloping trip turned to terror for a Chatham crew last week when their 45-foot dragger was struck and nearly sunk by an as-yet-unidentified 300-foot tanker.

Bob Keese and his crew aboard the scalloper Rebecca Nicole left Chatham Feb. 20, taking advantage of warmer weather and hoping for a payday to soothe what has been a winter of short wages.

About 31/2 hours after leaving port the Rebecca Nicole sat about 17 miles southeast of Chatham, its scallop dredge locked on the ocean floor.

There, with its engine temporarily disabled, the 45-foot dragger was rammed on its port bow by an unidentified tanker or freighter. The trip went from promising to harrowing as quickly as the lights went out on the Rebecca Nicole.

As the 50-foot-tall, 300-foot-long tanker bore down on the Rebecca Nicole all the crew saw was the outline of blinking lights against the moonless sky.

"Everyone at first thought we were going to sink immediately," said Keese. The crew - Keese; his brother, Andy Keese, and his fiancee, Alane Inman; and Ken Watt, all of Chatham - scrambled for their life suits and released the life raft.

It was the beginning of a journey that would eventually lead them limping back to harbor behind a Coast Guard cutter, their health intact, but their boat - and their nerves - shattered. Early estimates place the damage to the boat at $30,000.

"They're very lucky to be alive," said Chatham Harbor Master Stuart Smith. "They could have been sucked under the hull of the boat and we would never have heard from them again."

The U.S. Coast Guard believes it knows the ship that hit the Rebecca Nicole, but they are releasing few details. The vessel was in the Mississippi River as of yesterday afternoon, and was expected to arrive in New Orleans last night, according to Chief Warrant Officer Will Hart of the Marine Safety Office in Providence, R.I., who is investigating.

Paint chips found on the Rebecca Nicole, allegedly from the phantom ship, will be matched against the tanker sometime today.

"By (today) we will either have ruled it in or ruled it out," Hart said.

He declined to reveal the suspect ship's name or where it is from.

Things went bad quickly
The trip began uneventfully, said Keese, 33, who has been fishing since he was 14. He is coming up on his first anniversary of owning the Rebecca Nicole, named for his fiancee, Rebecca Menard.
Things began to go bad when the boat's engine overheated, and Keese had to shut it down. As they tried desperately to get the engine started, the tanker descended on them. A warning call to the giant ship, traveling at better than 20 knots, or 23 mph, went unheeded, Keese said.

"I didn't realize the severity of it until right at the end," he said.

Finally the boat's engine coughed and sputtered, and just as the huge ship bore in on the Rebecca Nicole, Keese was able to move it enough to avoid getting hit broadside.

Instead, the freighter plowed into the fishing boat's port bow. Four terrified crew members were tossed like marbles across the deck. Sparks from the shorting electrical system on the boat crackled into the night air as the mast hit the side of the ship.

As the tanker shoved past and continued on its way, Watts looked up at the towering stern and says he saw no name or numbers, just a black swath of steel.

Keese said he ran to the radio, which had been yanked from the wall, but was still working. He said he heard a garbled "foreign-sounding voice" saying something about a "fishing boat off our port side," but the caller did not identify his ship or his position. Keese says he radioed back to let them know no one was hurt, but got no confirmation of his call.

"I'm not sure if it was them. Sometimes we hear boats from hundreds of miles away," he said.

Is it possible the ship did not feel the impact, did not hear the crunch of metal on wood? Keese said he doubts it.

"To us, it was deafening. And there were sparks flying off the boat," he said. "I would think they would feel it, but maybe not."

The trip home
The Rebecca Nicole lost its radio when the crew pulled up its scallop-laden dredge and the rocking boat sprung the last wire off the wall. With no radio and with cell phone range still miles away, there was no way to call for help. But luck was with them. The hull was cracked above the water line, and no water was coming in.
Electrical circuits, shut down by the impact were restored by the flip of a circuit breaker. One hundred thirty pounds of scallops were quickly iced, and the boat started toward Chatham. About six miles out, Keese was finally able to reach his father, Robert Keese Jr., who usually fishes with his sons, but stayed home this trip. He called the Coast Guard at Chatham, which sent a boat to guide the Rebecca Nicole through the shoals outside Chatham Harbor.

The next day, Keese and his brother, who have been fishing out of Chatham for about two years, inspected the damage and sailed to Fairhaven, where the vessel now sits in Kelly's Shipyard waiting for repairs.

Keese said he was told by other fishermen after the accident that collisions with tankers are far more frequent than are reported.

That however, was disputed by Hart, who said that in his six years of investigating boat collisions, this is the first time it has involved a fishing boat and a tanker.

People underestimate how many ships pass relatively close to Chatham, Smith said.

"We're adjacent to a very busy shipping lane east and southeast of here," he said. "On certain days you can stand at the overlook (at the harbor) and see ships passing, and certainly at night you can see them."

He likened the plight of Keese and his crew to a small business owner on Main Street in Chatham that had just received $30,000 in damage without potentially knowing who did it.

"These guys have been holed up in the harbor all winter. The cold and ice, not to mention the regulations they have to put up with...And finally they get good weather and they're out of work," he said.

Keese says he would like whoever owns the ship to pay for his boat repairs as quickly as possible and he wants his crew to be compensated for lost wages.

But, his mother said she thinks more should be done.

"Why can't we have a licensed American pilot on board these ships while they're in U.S. waters?" asked Sandy Keese of Rochester. Aside from the risk to fishing boats, she argued, the tankers are carrying hazardous cargo relatively close to shore. She said she sent a letter to U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy with her sentiments earlier this week.

Sandy Keese said she wonders why it has taken the Coast Guard so long to find and detain the ship.

In August 2001, three crew members aboard the Rockland, Maine fishing boat, Starbound, drowned when their boat was hit by a Cypriot-flagged ship, the M.T. Virgo.

The Russian crew aboard the ship was arrested in St. John's, Newfoundland, several days later. Canadian and U.S. Coast Guard investigators were able to place the Virgo at the collision site by matching paint samples of the Starbound found on the tanker, and by reviewing its log books, which showed that its route took it within a mile of the collision site.

Hart said Sandy Keese's criticism of the pace of the investigation is unwarranted.

"I have a vessel of interest that's going to be inspected. I don't know how much more we can do right now," he said.

(Published: February 28, 2003) _______________________________________________

ken mcclure
02-28-2003, 03:45 PM
Whew!

Having read or heard several stories of this type over the years, I've come to appreciate more than just the taste when I eat seafood.