The curious case of Lyme's sunken sailboat unfolds

Lyme — A 53-foot sailboat that sank off the Connecticut River in Hamburg Cove’s icy waters late last month was finally raised and towed away, the U.S. Coast Guard said Wednesday.

As of 12:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sea Tow crews and divers were working to lift and drain the boat, a Coast Guard spokesman said. It was pulled out of the water by early afternoon.

The sailboat, which became an internet sensation after East Haddam resident Frank DiNardi on Jan. 27 posted a drone video of its sinking, has fascinated area residents, environmentalists, news outlets and boating enthusiasts.

“I think that it’s such a beautiful area and you don’t typically see a beautiful sunken sailboat there,” said DiNardi, who works for a local landscaping company. “It’s just so strange and bizarre and people are fascinated.”

DiNardi's video, which has garnered tens of thousands of views on YouTube, documents the beautiful blue-and-white boat before and after it sank. In both shots, the boat is surrounded by ice.

“The amount of response I’ve gotten over this video has been overwhelming," DiNardi said. “You don’t leave something like that sitting around to sink to the bottom.”

Before crews arrived Wednesday, the boat had been sitting for nearly a month in about 10 feet of water with its mast sticking above the surface. It was being towed to Chester Point Marina in Chester, the Coast Guard said.

According to Coast Guard registration records, the boat, named Mazu, was built in 1987. It was federally registered in January 2019 and its homeport is listed as Newport, R.I. Area residents and boating enthusiasts say the boat is a “Little Harbor” sailing yacht, a well-known luxury boat brand.

The sailboat is owned by Lyme resident Gil Johnson, according to local officials, business owners and area residents. Left moored in Hamburg Cove over the winter, the boat sank Jan. 26 into Jan. 27, despite local attempts to rescue it. The cause of the sinking was unknown, Coast Guard officials said. Johnson did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

The Coast Guard and state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection had been checking the boat on a daily basis since its sinking, and both agencies said it had not leaked any fuel. No fuel was released during the vessel's removal, the Coast Guard said in a release Wednesday night.

The Coast Guard estimated 80 to 100 gallons of diesel fuel were still on board — a source of concern for residents and environmentalists living near the cove who say the area is known for its bald eagles, which now are starting to nest there, and fish, ranging from yellow perch to carp.

Residents living on Hamburg Cove first noticed the boat was slowly sinking on Jan. 26, according to Alex Milardo, 22, of Lyme. Milardo, who lives on the cove, was one of many volunteers who tried to save the boat as it was sinking.

He said that before Lyme and Old Lyme volunteer firefighters arrived, he and two other people walked over cracking, thin ice while wearing life vests to attach a line to the boat to help keep it from sinking.

“I guess my life was at risk, but I didn’t think of it like that,” Milardo said, while watching crews lift the wreckage from the water Wednesday. “It was happening in front of my property, so I felt obligated to help keep it from sinking.”

Milardo said Johnson, the boat’s owner, stood on shore while volunteer fire crews worked to keep it from sinking on Jan. 26. He said Johnson did not attempt to help pull it from the water.

“He watched and didn’t do much. He wasn’t very worried and he really didn’t do anything. Not very urgent,” Milardo said. “You would at least think that if it were our own boat, we would have at least gotten coffee or doughnuts or food for the fire department just to say thank you. They are a volunteer organization. They were cold, they were in the water, and they can’t say no to responding to these situations.”

Milardo said that once the sun started setting that day, volunteer crews called off the operation. The boat was submerged by the next morning.

Because he grew up on the cove, Milardo said he is familiar with the boats that moor or dock in the area and that the cove is a popular boating spot due to its “natural beauty, quaintness and peacefulness.” He said the Mazu was new to the cove this past summer and wasn't moved from its moor much.

“I definitely thought it was strange that the boat was left there over the winter,” he said. “Usually, boats are taken out.”

The boat was legally moored at the town-owned mooring this year, harbor master Tom Reynolds said Wednesday. Mooring in Hamburg Cove costs about $100 annually, he said. Before January's sinking, the town did not have any rules or regulations dictating when a boat must be pulled from the water each winter. Reynolds said that the town likely will implement new rules and regulations next year in response to the incident.

The yacht is estimated to be worth $300,000 to $400,000, according to marine insurance agent Rod Clingman of Maritime Insurance International in Noank. Clingman said he believed restoring the boat would likely cost more than it is worth.

Clingman said that other expenses, such as towing and possible environmental fines, could run the owner upward of $100,000. He said the boat likely was uninsured, based on the length of time it took to be pulled from the water. He estimated insurance would have cost about $2,500 annually.

“If the boat was insured, the owner would have been able to line up a towing company and get it out much sooner,” Clingman said. “Typically, if a boat sinks, it can be pulled from the water within three days.”

The Coast Guard said Wednesday that icing around the boat prevented a timely towing and that the sinking was still under investigation. As of Wednesday morning, the owner had not been charged with any fines.

“We have plenty of cases like this over the winter time,” a spokesman said. “Small boats up to 50-foot boats do sink for various reasons.”

Reynolds agreed, saying that boats sink “all the time” and that this wasn’t a freak occurrence, though he could not recall any other sinkings in Hamburg Cove. He said that, since becoming harbor master six years ago, he has not seen someone leave a boat at a mooring over the winter.

“The owner kept telling me he would move it. He alleged he was going to take it out two weeks before it sank,” Reynolds said. “Obviously, he never did.”

m.biekert@theday.com

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