Mysterious tugboat sinking under investigation

Despite sinking to the bottom of the Merrimack River, the SPS Virginia could be back in service someday, according to the salvage company that lifted it out of the water earlier this week.DAVE ROGERS/Staff photo

NEWBURYPORT — In what is shaping up to be a mystery on the Merrimack, the Coast Guard is investigating how the SPS Virginia, a 90,000-pound tugboat, sank off Deer Island over the weekend.

The tugboat, one of two ferrying crane barges, equipment and contractors to and from the John Greenleaf Whittier Memorial Bridge project, was moored off the northern shore of Deer Island in Amesbury before it was reported missing Saturday morning. When it was discovered, it was resting on its side in about 20 to 30 feet of water, according to Newburyport harbormaster Paul Hogg. 

Coast Guard spokesman Ross Ruddell said the federal agency was investigating the cause but offered few details at this early stage. 

Mike Goodridge, owner Tow Boat US Marine Services, said his team couldn’t figure out how the boat sank. He said there were no obvious holes, gashes or ruptures, and every hatch was secured with padlocks. 

“It doesn’t make any sense at all. It’s a mystery to everyone, us included,” Goodridge said. 

But Ruddell said it was premature to reach any conclusions. 

“Boats, they sink — and sometimes for no apparent reason,” Ruddell said. 

It took the boat recovery team from Tow Boat US Marine Services a day and a half and more than two tide cycles not only to bring the boat back to the surface but to pump out all water and tow it to the Merri-Mar Yacht Basin off Merrimac Street across the street from Phil & Sons Auto Repair. 

According to Goodridge, the recovery operation began Sunday and finished sometime Monday afternoon. Teams of divers placed 6-foot-long plastic balloons underneath the boat, a process that took most of Sunday. Monday morning, the balloons were inflated, lifting the boat off the riverbed until it pierced the surface. The tugboat was then moved to higher ground where it was pumped clear of water.

With the entire interior cleared of water, it was tugged to Merri-Mar where it has been placed on steel posts and remains to this day. 

Assisting the Salisbury-based towing and salvage company were Hogg, Amesbury harbormaster Jack Bailey, and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, which dispatched barges to the site. 

Goodridge said the recovery operation wasn’t easy considering how much the boat weighed, the unpredictability of the current and a limited window when divers could safely operate — between high and low tide only. 

“If it goes the wrong way, you’re talking about 90,000 pounds shifting. It’s pretty dangerous,” Goodridge said. 

According to Hogg, the SPS Virginia served as the secondary tug for the massive bridge project, which will see the construction of a new eight-lane bridge across the Merrimack River and the replacement or refurbishment of four smaller bridges. Also, a section of Interstate 95 is being widened from Exit 57 in Newburyport to Exit 59 in Salisbury. The project is expected to be completed in 2016. 

The SPS Virginia is owned by Salisbury-based SPS New England, one of the major contractors working on the bridge project. 

MassDOT spokeswoman Rebecca Cyr said the SPS Virginia isn’t related to the Whittier bridge project in any way, so there is no impact in terms of when the project is completed. 

Ruddell said there was little to any pollution related to the sinking, mostly due to the fact that the boat landed on its side, blocking the only fuel vent on the craft. He estimated the boat contains 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel. As part of its investigation, the Coast Guard will determine whether any residual spillage occurred. 

Goodridge said that despite the sinking, the SPS Virginia could one day resume service, saying there was no physical damage to the vessel. Asked how much it cost to recover the tugboat, Goodridge said tens of thousands of dollars. 

“More than a couple (thousand),” he said. 

Recommended for you