Haverhill river boat tour plan not sunk after all

Courtesy photoTim Slavit plans to rename his tour boat the MS Capt. Red in memory of his father, the late William J. “Captain Red” Slavit.

HAVERHILL — A plan to launch a boat in Haverhill for tours of the Merrimack River nearly sunk last week, but has now resurfaced.

Tim Slavit, founder of Haverhill River Cruises, said that after consulting with the mayor's office, he decided to follow all the rules for obtaining permits needed to moor his 105-foot-long, 25-foot-wide tour boat in the river behind the Water Street fire station.

"I spoke with Shawn Regan on Tuesday and he told me the mayor is in full support, but wants me to follow the rules," Slavit said about his conversation with the mayor's aide. "I see this as a positive turn ... I want to make this work."

Mayor James Fiorentini said he is excited at the possibility of having a tour boat business in the city.

"It sounds promising that he's going to answer questions and work with us, but there are no guarantees," Fiorentini said of Slavit. "We will work with him to see if we can make this happen. I did speak to the harbormaster and he will try to find a safe place to moor his (Slavit's) boat. There have been some legitimate concerns raised, but we'll continue to work with Mr. Slavit."

Slavit named his tour boat, which can carry 400 passengers, the "MS Capt. Red'' in memory of his late father, William J. "Captain Red" Slavit, Haverhill's longtime harbormaster who operated tour boats on the Merrimack River for years. Tim Slavit was assistant harbormaster when he father was harbormaster.

Slavit wants to bring his tour boat to Haverhill as the city focuses on the river as a source of tourism and a way to draw visitors to the downtown to stop at restaurants and shops. The river, which runs next to the downtown, has gained popularity in recent years with boaters and businesses, as well as developers looking to build housing close to the Merrimack.

Slavit said he spoke with Fire Chief Robert O'Brien, who told him to reach out to Rob Moore in the city's conservation office and also to contact state wildlife officials to seek permission to place moorings in an area of the river where sturgeon may be passing through on their annual migration.

Sturgeon are a species of fish that date back to prehistoric times and migrate from the ocean up river to lay their eggs. Environmental laws protect their safety and the spawning areas where they lay eggs. Sturgeon in the Merrimack are as big as 6 feet long, according to wildlife experts.

Slavit said it is likely to be several weeks before conservation and wildlife officials decide whether he is allowed to install moorings in the river.

"They said it's a 30-day turnaround for a decision, and then I'll need to call Chief O'Brien to inform him of what they say," Slavit said, adding that his two sons plan to meet with Harbormaster Michael Vets, O'Brien and Regan as early as next Monday to come up with a plan to place moorings in the river after Vets had ordered them removed last week.

City Conservation Commission member Ralph Basiliere said he is encouraged to learn that Slavit has opened a dialogue with city and state conservation officials.

"This is a good first step and we look forward to working with him to come into compliance with the endangered species act," he said.

During a Harbor Commission meeting on March 9, Slavit balked at some questions posed by commission members and then walked out of the meeting. The next day, he received a letter from Vets ordering him to remove the concrete moorings he had previously placed in the river without approvals.

The two moorings — each weighing 6,000 pounds and created by a company in Maine — were designed with holes that allow fish to swim through them, Slavit said.

Slavit said he will provide the mayor's office with details of his plan, including how he will refuel his boat and have its septic waste tank pumped out, proof of insurance, a copy of his son Ryan's 100-ton boat operators license and a copy of the boat's current certificate of inspection.

Slavit said on Wednesday that he piloted his tour boat from its berth in Gloucester to the Salisbury Beach Reservation, where it is moored just offshore.

If the weather is clear this weekend, he plans to bring the boat to Haverhill and show that he can make a U-turn in the river, which he plans to do behind the Tap restaurant before heading back to Salisbury.

If the weather cooperates, he will leave the Salisbury Reservation, travel under the Route 1 Gillis bridge, which may have to open depending on the tide, and then travel under the Deer Island chain bridge, which doesn't open. The rest of the route calls for the boat to go under the Route 95 Whitter Bridge, the Rocks Bridge, which is a manually operated swing span bridge that will also have to open, and then under the Groveland Bridge. 

Slavit said the Coast Guard inspected his boat before he put it in the water in Gloucester. If he gets permission to bring the boat to Haverhill for tours in May, the Coast Guard will do a safety inspection before any passengers are allowed on board, he said. The inspection will be done annually, he said.

"The mayor wants us to give rides to every school child in the city and teach them about the river, and I'm also planning to hold trips for seniors and for wounded warriors, and Shriner's Children's Hospital has already made arrangements with my sons," Slavit said.

"Considering what people have been through over the past year because of the pandemic, we want everyone to have a chance at a ride on the river and to enjoy a hot dog and a soft drink," Slavit said, "and if they can't afford it, we'll help with that, too."

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