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Salvage incident gets ‘out of hand’

Operators for Sea Tow and TowBoatU.S. both claim salvage rights on a sinking Bertram

Operators for Sea Tow and TowBoatU.S. both claim salvage rights on a sinking Bertram

A standoff between tow captains led to the Coast Guard escorting one man off a sinking boat in handcuffs after he tried to stop the other from deploying dewatering gear in a dispute over salvage rights.

An unidentified couple abandoned a 46-foot Bertram, Fortuna, after it started to take on water four miles off Pompano Beach, Fla., April 27, according to Broward sheriff’s office spokesman Neil Birenbaum. Hearing their mayday, a sheriff’s boat arrived to help the two, who were in a life raft. Then the Coast Guard appeared, followed shortly by towboats from both Sea Tow and TowBoatU.S., says Birenbaum.

“These guys started battling for the right to tow the boat,” says Birenbaum. Both sides claimed to already have had pumps on the boat when a confrontation on deck occurred. Undisputed by either side, TowBoatU.S.’s Larry Acheson, who was led off in cuffs after stopping Sea Tow’s Scott Hale from laying hose, sent one of his crewmembers to the owner — now aboard another boat — and secured a salvage contract.

Sea Tow says Hale was right in deploying dewatering gear without getting a contract because the couple didn’t speak fluent English, and valuable time would have been lost trying to talk to them.

“The first responsibility of a salvor is to save the boat,” says Keith Cummings, president of Sea Tow Services International in Southold, N.Y. “Our guy could have gone over to the owner and had a nice discussion about saving the vessel, but by then it could have sunk.”

When Hale tried to bring a dewatering hose on the boat, “Larry lost his cool and basically shoved our guy,” Cummings says. There was no fistfight, he adds, but Hale fell, cut his knee and hurt an ankle. That’s when the Coast Guard stepped in and took Acheson off the boat.

Birenbaum says the Coast Guard later released him at their station.

Acheson, in a statement, disputes that account. He says two of his men already were on board Fortuna when Hale tied up to the Bertram. “At that moment Offshore Marine Towing [the TowBoatU.S. affiliate] had two personnel on board, several pumps running and dewatering the vessel, and several more pumps on board and standing by,” the statement says. “The situation was well under control.”

Blocking Hale’s way, Acheson told Hale his assistance wasn’t required and he shouldn’t try to board, according to the TowBoatU.S. statement. Acheson says Hale tried to push past him three times, and the fourth time Acheson fended him off with his arms. “The Sea Tow captain did not fall down; he did not stumble, and was not injured,” Acheson says. His attorney, Sam Fields, told the Miami Herald newspaper that regardless of who was there first, a salvage contract in hand trumps arriving first.

Cummings says Sea Tow’s Hale already was aboard the Bertram when TowBoatU.S. arrived with three boats. Two boats put men aboard the sinking vessel, while the captain of the third secured the contract.

Cummings says the rival towers could have worked together to save the boat — which they have done before — and worked out who gets salvage fees later. He says the 1984 Bertram was valued at less than $30,000 and would have produced a salvage fee of $3,000 to $4,000 at most. “That’s nothing, especially for these guys,” he says. “This was really a stupid thing.”

Despite the drama, the dewatering pumps did their job, saving the boat. TowBoatU.S. towed Fortuna to port.

Cummings says these tow captains are fierce competitors. “They work hard, but this one got out of hand,” he says.