By Lynne Hendricks
NEWBURYPORT — Tow Boat US divers have located the hull and what remains of the 36-foot boat a Kensington, N.H., man was captaining when it went down in the mouth of the Merrimack River on June 24.
However, the body of the missing captain, Seth Coellner, 36, has not been found.
Using sonar technology, Tow Boat owner Michael Goodridge dove down Monday evening to the site, a quarter-mile northeast off Salisbury's north jetty, and found the broken and battered hull resting upside down on the ocean floor. He described the scene as a tangled mess of wires, hoses and splintered wood — most likely deposited at the current location by the first outgoing tide following the incident.
"We found the boat, or what remains of the boat," Goodridge said. "It's not really intact. The hull was there and the motors, but it's pretty broken up."
On the front side of the boat, Goodridge said he observed a 4-foot hole, which he thinks confirms what boat owner Russell Hilliard, 50, first told police and confirmed to Goodridge Monday — that the boat suffered a catastrophic hit on the north jetty.
Although one family member seeking to piece together what happened that evening suspected the boat had struck a sandbar, Goodridge thinks the hole in the hull discounts that theory. The boat, he said, is an older model Uniflight craft with an all-fiberglass hull, and not the wooden-hulled Chris Craft originally identified by the Coast Guard.
"They definitely suffered an impact," Goodridge said. "You can't drive a Uniflight onto a sandbar and put a 4-foot hole in the boat. It's solid fiberglass."
Goodridge said he spoke with the owner of the boat Monday afternoon, and Hilliard reiterated the same story he told police after the incident — that the group hit the north side of the north jetty. In his attempt to help Goodridge locate the boat, he described the location where he watched the boat go down in the water.
"He was very straight with me," Goodridge said. "He said 'We hit the jetties.' He could tell me exactly where they hit."
Hilliard told Goodridge that from his perch on the jetties, where he and Mark Baillargeon stood awaiting rescue, they watched the boat go down 60 feet away.
"I watched the lights go down and slide away," Hilliard said.
Hilliard recalled that from his location on the jetty, there was no bend in sight between himself and the jetty light, which is the bend in what locals refer to as the "dog leg."
"It happened exactly where the witnesses said it happened — outside the elbow halfway out to the bar," Goodridge said. "It sank so quick that it stayed there until the outgoing tide, and then it got pushed out into the river."
Though some officials familiar with the case have said it's possible for a boat to lose its bottom over a sandbar, Goodridge referred to the hole in the hull as "catastrophic," accounting for how quickly the boat sank. He has no doubts that the boat hit the jetty.
"Without a doubt," he said. "That's a catastrophic hole."
Coellner, a former Coast Guardsman and licensed captain, stayed on deck to call for help after his three passengers swam to the safety of the jetty.
Coellner's call came in to police dispatch at 10 p.m. June 24, and after being patched in by the police, the Coast Guard arrived within 10 minutes to the scene. Coast Guard officials said Monday they arrived in time to see the boat half submerged.
"The boat had begun to sink and was drifting away from the break wall," said Lt. Stephen West with the Coast Guard's Boston unit. "It was partially submerged."
The Coast Guard boat on the scene — a 47-foot cutter from Station Merrimack River — did not include a diving unit, which prohibited them from entering the vessel in search of Coellner, West said.
"The problem we were running into is we wanted to dive to get inside of it to make sure there was no one trapped inside," West said. "Because the vessel was partially submerged, they would have had to dive to get inside of it."
State police reported they checked the hull of the boat the following morning and found no signs of Coellner. Goodridge said though he saw nothing but the ship on his first dive to the site Monday night, he can't confirm Coellner isn't there until he gets under the hull.
"He's not there as far as I know," Goodridge said. "I haven't lifted the boat up."
Goodridge said yesterday he planned to begin lifting debris from the site, weather permitting. The hull, he said, might come up sometime today.
"It's pinned on the bottom," he said. "It's probably going to take a few attempts to get it. It's in such poor condition that we can't just raise the whole thing. There's a debris field that stretches 60 by 30 feet. We have to pick up pieces to start, and then we'll get the main hull."