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Barge crushes $1.5 million yacht in Stamford Harbor

September 19, 2018

STAMFORD - A 50-foot, custom-built yacht worth $1.5 million docked at the city’s new boatyard was badly damaged when it was struck by one of two barges being tugged to O&G Industries in Stamford Harbor.

Capt. Eric Knott, the state-appointed harbor master, said the accident occurred about 8 a.m. Monday in the West Branch, immediately north of Crab Shell Restaurant.

A tug boat from Weeks Marine, a New Jersey company, was delivering two barges to O&G, Knott said. One drifted away while the tug was attempting to dock them, he said.

It floated toward Hinckley boatyard and hit the Sea Jay, a year-old catamaran built in South Africa that was in final preparation for a trip through the Panama Canal and across the Pacific Ocean to the French Polynesian islands, Knott said.

“It was supposed to leave in two weeks,” Knott said. He did not know the owner’s identity.

The barge broke off the back of one hull of the Sea Jay and severely damaged the back of the other, he said. There also was internal and structural damage, he said.

Sgt. Kevin Fitzgibbons of the Stamford Police Harbor Unit said the yacht is probably a total loss.

“The barge was extremely heavy with sand and gravel,” Fitzgibbons said.

A standard barge is 175 feet long, 26 feet wide, and weighs 1,000 to 1,500 tons, he said.

The Coast Guard is investigating, said Lt. Rodion Mazin, based in New Haven.

“It is an active investigation at this time,” Mazin said. “There was minor sheening on the water that was removed pretty quickly. The vessel didn’t sink and was towed for repairs.”

But the Sea Jay is not at Hinckley, the Selleck Street boatyard built by Building and Land Technology after the developer improperly tore down the city’s original boatyard on Bateman Way.

The yacht was towed to Norwalk Cove Marina, Knott said.

“It had to go to Norwalk because it was too wide to be lifted out at the new boatyard in Stamford,” he said. “It’s wider than a normal boat, and the boatyard in Stamford seems very much geared to Hinckley boats, which are a lot narrower.”

Norwalk Cove Marina confirmed Tuesday that the Sea Jay is on land there.

Big lift

Peter Manion, general manager of Hinckley Stamford, said the boatyard has an 82-ton lift that can haul 70-foot boats. But “sailing catamarans are super wide,” Manion said.

“Norwalk has huge lifts for massive commercial boats. I can’t speak to why, but Norwalk has always had bigger lifts, even than what Brewer’s Yacht Haven had,” said Manion, who once was operations manager for the company that ran Stamford’s original boatyard. “The lift we have is bigger, stronger, and it’s brand-new. It can lift just about any boat in the harbor except some of the mega-yachts.”

Manion said most barges pass Hinckley boatyard without incident, but it was different Monday morning.

“One barge was loose and pivoting when it went by. It still had one line attached to the other barge, and it was in the middle of pivoting 180 degrees,” Manion said. “That may be a maneuver commercial tugs use.”

Fitzgibbons said the barges were being transported “in tandem - one in front of the other, pushed by the tug boat.” As they approached O&G, he said, “the tug boat tried to put the barges side by side to push them into the dock.”

A line on one of the barges was released so it could swing around, he said. That’s when it hit the Sea Jay.

Choke point

Knott said the accident happened near a narrow point in the channel made more congested by Hinckley boatyard and other harbor-side development by BLT, which is remaking a large portion of the South End with a project called Harbor Point.

Earlier this year Knott appeared before the Board of Representatives with detailed presentations illustrating his concerns about safety in Stamford Harbor.

“I explained then that this sort of accident would happen - it was just a matter of when,” Knott said. “You’ve got a pinch point in the West Branch, just before all the commercial docks, the restaurants, and the private moorings, and now there’s a new marina with a fuel dock.”

The accident with the Sea Jay occurred 50 or 60 feet from the fuel dock, he said.

“The commercial traffic in the harbor is well established, the recreational traffic is well established, and they have coexisted for years,” Knott said. “But now with a new boatyard in that pinch point, you’ve got circumstances that -- when tugs and barges come through, no matter how good the operators are - if they are slightly off from where they are supposed to be, you’ve given them something to hit.”

Knott told the representatives about an incident in which a 20,000-ton barge broke from its moorings and drifted down the East Branch of the harbor. If it did not become wedged, it would have destroyed a public marina, Czescik on Shippan Avenue, Knott said.

BLT spokesman Tom Nolan said there are problems with barges in Stamford Harbor.

“O&G barges have had multiple accidents in the harbor, recently hitting the pier at TGM (Anchor Point Apartments) and boats at the former Brewer’s Yacht Haven West,” Nolan said in an email.

An O&G spokesman said Tuesday he needed time to collect information but it appears that those incidents occurred years ago during severe storms. O&G operates two asphalt plants, a concrete plant, a recycling center, and a sand and stone yard along Stamford Harbor.

Happening harbor

There is more activity in the harbor, Manion said.

“It is condensed. We didn’t used to be there, and I’m sure it doesn’t help,” he said.

Fitzgibbons said the city is “trying to cater more to boaters, with dock-and-dine restaurants and other amenities, (and) with all the improvements in the area, it attracts more people.”

Knott said that, since he made his presentations to city representatives, funding for the marine police unit has been reduced.

“It would be really nice for everybody on the water if the city started treating safety in the harbor seriously, rather than playing the verbal game,” he said.

A request for comment from Weeks Marine was not returned.

Mayor David Martin’s office also did not return a request for comment. The city’s Zoning Board is being sued by a Long Island Sound advocacy group, SoundKeeper, which alleges that regulations were wrongfully changed to allow BLT to build a smaller boatyard offering fewer services than the original.

In 2011 BLT removed the city’s only boatyard from the peninsula off Bateman Way, violating its zoning agreement and state laws governing coastland. Judge Henry Cohn, who is hearing the 2-year-old case in state Superior Court in New Britain, had a hearing scheduled for Tuesday afternoon.

Knott said only the Coast Guard investigation can reveal what happened Monday, but conditions were not unusual.

“It was a nice day for running a boat on the water,” he said.

acarella@stamfordadvocate.com; 203-964-2296.

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