BAR HARBOR, Maine — A tender carrying passengers to the cruise ship Summit ran aground Thursday night between Bar and Sheep Porcupine islands but no one was injured in the incident, according to officials.

The accident happened around 7:45 p.m., in dark, rainy conditions and when the tide was low, Lt. Nick Barrow of the U.S. Coast Guard said Friday morning. The tender breached its hull in more than one place as it struck rocks protruding from the water and got stuck, he said. The 93 passengers on board were removed safely within about 20 minutes of the grounding by a local whale watch boat, he said.

“Obviously, it could have been a dangerous situation for those on board,” Barrow said.

The tender remained hung up on the rocks for more than an hour before the tide came back in and it was freed, Barrow said. The tender then was taken back to the cruise ship and hoisted back into storage on the larger ship.

Barrow said the incident remains under investigation. The tender has been taken out of circulation by the cruise ship, he said, which still has enough tender capacity to accommodate all of its passengers in the event of an emergency.

Safety concerns have been raised locally before about the use of tenders, which are operated by cruise ship employees who aren’t that familiar with the bay. In May 2011, various emergency response agencies even held a drill to prepare for what might happen if two tenders collided in the harbor in heavy fog.

The passage of cruise ship tenders between Bar and Sheep Porcupine islands as they go back and forth between the town’s waterfront and cruise ship anchorage B, just north of Bar Island, has been a specific concern.
Tenders that go back and forth to anchorage A, located to the west of the downtown waterfront, do not pass between the two islands. Going around the west side of Bar Island to access the harbor is not an option because of the shallow sand bar that connects it to MDI.

In February, Charlie Phippen, Bar Harbor’s harbor master sent a request to the Coast Guard, asking the agency to consider placing two navigational buoys in the waterway between Bar and Sheep Porcupine islands. There is a natural underwater trough between the two islands that is 13 feet deep, he indicated, and properly placed buoys could help guide tenders safely through it.

At low tide rocks protrude above the water’s surface between the two islands just west of the trough and, between those rocks and Bar Island, the water is only a foot or two deep. Most local boaters, Phippen said, are familiar enough with the harbor that they know where and when it is safe to pass between the islands.

In early May, as the town’s 2012 cruise ship season was getting under way, Phippen said getting the marker buoys in place soon was one of his goals.

The Coast Guard declined Phippen’s request, however.

Barrow said Friday that the Coast Guard is aware that tenders routinely pass through the shallow waters between Bar and Sheep Porcupine islands, which the agency does not consider to be navigable. He said the Coast Guard’s position is that vessels should use the federal channel east of Sheep Porcupine to get from the local harbor to the north side of Bar Island, even though the federal channel is more exposed and has been known to have heavier seas in windy conditions.

Barrow said the town can seek permission from the Coast Guard to place its own marker buoys between the two islands. He added, however, that any entity that places navigation buoys between the two islands could face liability issues if something amiss happens to a boat because of the placement of those buoys.

“There’s little room for error there,” he said.

Barrow added that, even with navigational buoys to help guide them, the safety of any vessel under way ultimately is the responsibility of the vessel operator.

“You can only go so far with hardware in the water,” the Coast Guard spokesman said. “There’s an educational component, too.”

Phippen said Friday that, beyond the exchange of letters he had with the Coast Guard earlier this year, he has not pursued the matter further to see what it might cost the town to place its own marker buoys, what obligations that might attach to the town, or what other options there might be.

He said getting permission to place marker buoys between the islands could be problematic because he is not sure the town has jurisdiction over the area. Bar Island and Sheep Porcupine Island are both considered to be part of the town of Gouldsboro, most of which lies on the far side of Frenchman Bay from Mount Desert Island. Bar Harbor might not have the necessary authority to place any markers outside its local waters, he said.

Phippen and Barrow each said that, in light of Thursday’s incident, there likely will be renewed discussion among the various entities involved about the safety of tender traffic in Frenchman Bay.

Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at @billtrotter.

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....