When the watermen motored up the Mispillion River last year to store their boats for the winter, they couldn’t have known what a hassle it would be to get back out to the bay in the spring. But after a crash this winter on a Milford drawbridge, the start of crabbing season has come and gone and two work boats are still at Vinyard Shipyard in Milford.
Vinyard Shipyard's owners and local watermen are now suing the Department of Transportation to fix the damaged bridge, with the fishermen saying they are losing a lot of money since they can't get out on the water, and the owners saying the shipyard has no commercial value if they can't get boats in and out. One other waterman who joined the lawsuit has since had his vessel hauled from the shipyard by trailer.
It’s a problem that’s gone on for months, and looks like it may last months to come.
On Dec. 28 of last year, according to lawsuit documents, a truck hauling a trailer smashed into the drawbridge on North Rehoboth Boulevard (Business Route 1) in Milford over the Mispillion River. The truck, owned by a masonry company, was towing a flatbed trailer with an excavator on it, and the excavator hit the top of the bridge with such force that it ripped the trailer free of the truck. The crash also significantly damaged the bridge.
The Delaware Department of Transportation inspected the bridge and found the opening mechanisms weren’t operating. They feared that if the bridge were opened it would stay that way, shutting down the road, according to the lawsuit. Department spokesman C.R. McLeod confirmed in an email that they’ve done three inspections since January and engineers say the bridge is not safe to operate.
Crabbing season, which is a big deal economically for watermen, began March 1 and as April wanes the bridge remains closed.
That leaves Kevin Beam and Jason Watson of Milton, both commercial fishermen, unable to travel downstream from the Vinyard Shipyard where they brought their boats for repairs last winter. Beam and Watson dock at Slaughter Beach, and that’s where they want to go. But their boats, each longer than 30 feet, can’t fit under the closed bridge and they have declined DelDOT's offer to transport the boats.
Joan and Sudler Lofland, the owners of Vinyard Shipyard, aren’t pleased either. Their boatyard was founded in 1896 by Wilson M. Vinyard. It built wooden yachts and also Navy and Coast Guard boats during World War II, and according to the Milford Museum is the last remaining piece of the city’s shipbuilding industry. The Loflands have restored three of these yachts, which they use for recreation and take to various boat shows. Or did before the bridge accident.
The Loflands say in the lawsuit that the yachts and the shipyard have no commercial value to them without the use of the Mispillion River, and the watermen say they are missing out on valuable fishing. They can gross up to $100,000 in a single run in the spring, according to the lawsuit. The watermen harvest fish, crabs, conch and oysters.
They filed the lawsuit in March, asking the court to order the bridge opened or repaired by April 1. But their day in court won’t come until July 11, according to attorney Scott Wilcox of Wilmington-based Moore and Rutt, P.A., the firm representing the plaintiffs.
McLeod wrote that the department offered to pay to move the boats by trailer to another marina.
“That offer was made to avoid any ongoing losses and minimize the financial hardship to the vessel and marina owners while the bridge remains inoperable,” he said.
According to the lawsuit, the state told Sudler Lofland in January that it was considering several options to solve the problem, including lifting the fishing boats with a crane, hauling them overland and putting them back in the water at Slaughter Beach. The fishermen objected to the crane idea at the time.
"They reasonably fear their boats will be damaged and the entire fishing season lost," the lawsuit reads.
However, one boat owner who is named as a plaintiff in the lawsuit, Russell Brown of Dover, has since taken the state's offer and had his boat hauled from the boatyard by trailer, according to Wilcox. The other two are trying to find other ways to make up for missing crabbing season.
Other potential options the state outlined included opening the bridge and leaving it open, replacing the bridge or permanently closing the bridge, according to the lawsuit.
On a recent morning traffic was busy on the bridge. Business Route 1 connects with Route 1, and DelDOT doesn’t seem to be considering permanent closure and the traffic disruption that would entail. According to McLeod, the department is committed to having a moveable bridge at that spot.
The lawsuit claims that DelDOT has refused to take the necessary steps to open the bridge.
The department, though, says it is looking into fixing the bridge.
“DelDOT remains committed to assisting the owners of the ... directly impacted commercial vessels with using those available and commercially reasonable means of placing their vessels into operation during the period of time the bridge is inoperable,” McLeod wrote.
McLeod wrote that DelDOT anticipates it could take months to get an estimate for repair or replacement of the bridge, after which they’ll have a better idea of when the bridge will be operational again.
It looks like unless they turn to the crane option or the court comes up with some kind of solution in July, the boats will be stuck in Milford for the foreseeable future.