Houseboat investigation complete: Maintenance issues, overloading blamed for sinking

Published online: Jan 09, 2010 News BARBARA ARRIGONI
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OROVILLE -- A combination of maintenance issues and structural weight were deemed the primary causes of a 55-foot houseboat sinking last Nov. 1 in Lake Oroville, an official said Thursday.

That was the determination made as a result of a two-month investigation by State Parks officer Travis Gee that was completed Dec. 30.

State Parks officials first learned of Midnight Blue's descent into the depths when a 49-foot houseboat was reported sinking at about 9 a.m. Nov. 1, according to the final report.

On arrival, a State Parks officer spotted that vessel, owned by Barry Kegley, partially submerged.

However it was soon determined Midnight Blue was missing, and it and Kegley's boat were moored on the same cable. The mooring cable was severed and Kegley's boat was recovered without sinking further.

The two-story Midnight Blue was discovered by sonar about 30 feet below the surface. It eventually rested on a shelf about 160 feet down.

It took four days to recover the vessel, and another three to remove it from the Bidwell Marina low-water ramp and move it to a boat yard.

Gee spent the next two months interviewing several sources, including houseboat experts and Midnight Blue's owner, Greg Alaways.

On a checklist in the final report, Gee marked equipment failure, overloading and improper floatation as items observed during the investigation.

Gee could not be reached for comment, but retired State Parks Regional Superintendent Steve Feazel elaborated on Gee's conclusions in an interview at the office on Glen Drive in Oroville.

Feazel said the investigation showed "a lack of adequate maintenance" of the caps that cover portholes on the pontoons. The portholes go to separate compartments designed to help keep the boat afloat even if one fills with water. Feazel indicated the caps weren't sealed adequately, which allowed water into the compartments.

He said the other main factor in the sinking was that the houseboat had been altered structurally over the years, which added a significant amount of weight.

"Those factors, working in combination, appear to have led to the boat taking on water that eventually led to its sinking," Feazel said.

Midnight Blue's mooring location on the outside line at Bidwell Marina, where it was exposed to wind and wave activity, also played a role, but not a primary one, Feazel added.

Boat owner Greg Alaways said Wednesday he received a copy of the final report, but with two pages omitted. He has consulted with an attorney and plans to subpoena the missing pages, and considers the report incomplete.

Earlier, Alaways disagreed there were maintenance issues, and attributed the sinking to its mooring location and the elements, particularly a storm prior to the incident.

Alaways said he examined Midnight Blue with Gee at the boat yard. The pontoons still contained some water, but underneath the boat was dry and there was no sign of leaking, he said.

Alaways also said the houseboat was fine until marina operators moved it last September from a sheltered cove, to the more exposed location.

Alaways said marina officials at the time were warned the boat wouldn't last out on the lake like that.

"That's the roughest part of the lake," he said.

In the report, Gee noted scum lines on the right pontoon showed the vessel was listing, or leaning, to the right, with approximately 3 inches of the porthole covers partially submerged.

"The portholes seemed to be compromised, allowing intrusion of water (into the pontoons)," Feazel said.

The investigation showed nine of the 16 compartments on the right pontoon had been compromised, providing only 44-percent of possible floatation on that side, according to a portion of the official report.

Gee stated in the final report that examination of the left pontoon revealed similar compromised integrity, and the same cracked and weak plastic caps. The caps on both pontoons were all found with 1/4-inch holes drilled in the middle. Gee also found some caps had been taped over with duct tape.

Alaways said Wednesday there has always been a scum line, and that pictures he took a few years ago show no deviation in the line's location. He also insisted Midnight Blue was not slowly sinking over a period of years, and disputed the finding of "overloading." On one occasion, 32 people were aboard the vessel without it sinking.

Alaways said he'll reserve further comment until he obtains the complete report, but he reiterated Midnight Blue was fine until the marina moved it "to the worst spot on the lake."

Staff writer Barbara Arrigoni can be reached at 533-3136 or barrigoni@orovillemr.com.

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