On the morning of November 2, 1997, the Northern Voyager, a 144-foot fishing vessel, was proceeding a few miles off the coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts when crewmen discovered water flooding a compartment in the ship’s stern. The flooding, which resulted when the starboard rudder dropped out of the vessel, was severe and the crew immediately began trying to pump out the water. Despite the crew’s best efforts, the water level in the compartment continued to rise, threatening to flood the boat’s engine room. If the engine room flooded, all of the Northern Voyager’s electrical pumps and generators located inside would be rendered useless.
The situation was such that the master of the Northern Voyager, Captain David Haggerty, radioed Coast Guard Station Gloucester, told them that “[w]ater [was] coming in fast,” and requested that they “get some pumps out to [the ship].” To complicate matters, a storm had passed through the area the night before, leaving swells of roughly six to eight feet. Station Gloucester (under the command of Chief Warrant Officer Wesley Dittes) responded immediately by launching a 41-foot boat, to be followed shortly thereafter by a 47-foot one. The Coast Guard also diverted a 110-foot cutter, the ADAK, to assist as On Scene Coordinator. Coast Guard Group Boston, which is organizationally superior to Station Gloucester, assumed the role of Search and Rescue Mission Coordinator.
The 41-footer arrived on the scene at approximately 9:15 a.m. and immediately evacuated eight crew members who apparently requested to leave the Northern Voyager, leaving on board of the original crew Captain Haggerty, the engineer, and the first mate. Two Coast Guardsmen, Petty Officers Adam Sirois and Brian Conners, boarded the Northern Voyager and attempted to assist in continuing efforts to remove water from the ship using extra pumps supplied by the Coast Guard. Although what was done slowed the rate of water accumulation, the flooding continued and the Northern Voyager began to develop a port side list.
As the Northern Voyager rolled and began to list, Coast Guard Officer Dittes (aboard the 47-footer), Group Boston, and the On Scene Coordinator began discussing the possibility that the vessel would need to be evacuated. Several factors worried Dittes. His most immediate concern was that the vessel’s port side tilt made both access to and escape from the Northern Voyager more difficult. This is because the fishing boat’s only access port, a door from the shelter deck through which the crew boarded and departed from the boat, was on the starboard side. As the fishing boat tilted more and more to port, the starboard side was raised higher and higher off the surface of the water. No less worrisome was his concern about progressive flooding, which was causing the vessel to settle further in the water, with the danger that the boat would capsize without warning before it sank, trapping anyone aboard before they could be rescued.
Based upon these concerns, Dittes’s conversations with Northern Voyager crew members who had already boarded the 47-footer, and the continual progression of the flooding, Dittes ordered his men to evacuate the Northern Voyager’s remaining crew members. Captain Haggerty opposed the Coast Guard’s decision to evacuate his vessel and wanted to talk about other options for pumping and salvage, including commercial salvage.
Dittes and Conners refused to discuss any other options for salvage aboard the Northern Voyager, and, again, ordered Haggerty and his men off the boat. According to Captain Haggerty, Conners informed him that if he did not cooperate, the Coast Guard would “subdue [him] physically” in order to take him off the Northern Voyager. All Coast Guard personnel and the remaining Northern Voyager officers were then transferred to the Coast Guard 47-footer.
The Northern Voyager was abandoned at 10:27 a.m., continued to sink, and capsized at 11:22 a.m., fifty-five minutes after the last person left the vessel. Captain Haggerty did not want to stay around and watch the boat sink. Accordingly, shortly after the evacuation, the Coast Guard 47-footer headed back to Station Gloucester with Captain Haggerty and the remaining members of his crew on board.
According to plaintiffs’ experts, there were various steps that Captain Haggerty and his senior crew could have taken to stabilize the situation if the Coast Guard had permitted them to stay on the vessel. These steps included shutting certain doors and making them watertight so that the flooding was confined to two compartments in the stern of the boat. If these steps had been taken, plaintiffs’ experts asserted, the vessel could have floated for at least another twenty hours even assuming that no pumping capacity was brought to bear. This would have provided ample time for independent salvage resources to reach the vessel, even if they had to come from as far away as Boston.
The USCG was sued by the owners and underwriters of the Northern Voyager for ordering the crew off the vessel and prohibiting a commercial salvor from aiding the stricken vessel, which ultimately led to it’s sinking. The owners of the Northern Voyager also absorbed a $300,000 cost to remove bunker oil trapped in the vessel. The court found in favor of the Coast Guard, citing the sea conditions posed significant risk to human safety, that the Coast Guard acted in the best interest of human safety and that they were not responsible for the vessel itself. The decision was appealed, arguing that the Coast Guard should be liable for damages due to negligence. The claim was that the USCG was not intervening in a situation considered to be a life-threatening emergency (the Northern Voyager was reported to have a functioning powerplant at the time the evacuation order was given). However, in a decision that set new precedent, the First Circuit Court of Appeals held that the U.S. Coast Guard acted appropriately, within its discretionary powers in curtailing salvage efforts and removing the vessel’s officers from their ship.
Today, the Northern Voyager lies in 180 ft of water 3.5 miles southeast of Gloucester. The Northern Voyager is one of the two deeper wrecks off Cape Ann, the other being the bow section of the Poling. In this area there are often strong tidal currents, although the visibility tends to be good. The wreck lies 3/4 turtled on its starboard rail and can be reached in about 155 ft of water. Although a tight squeeze, the interior can be penetrated by entering from the sand level. Both propellers are still on the wreck (they appear to be steel not bronze). The wreck is totally intact, which makes it a strange sight since most wrecks have damage to the hull. Each year, more and more growth appears on the hull, although it is still relatively clean with letters and paint clearly visible. The wreck has little to no monofiliment or hang ups on it, which makes it tempting for novice tech divers. But its awkward angle and depth can be disorienting when swimming the hull. Visibility averages 10-20′ and currents vary from moderate to strong.