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Whale watch lurches into overnight ordeal

Passengers stranded, sickened after vessel snarls at sea

They couldn’t free the ship’s propeller. The seas were too choppy to transfer to the rescue boat. It was cold. And once sea sickness set in, it did not stop.

The tour, run by Boston Harbor Cruises, bills itself as “Boston’s only three-hour whale watch.” This trip ended up taking 18 hours.

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The whale watch boat returning from Stellwagen Bank on Monday afternoon strayed into a restricted navigation area, where its propeller became entangled in a cable for a natural gas pipeline, stranding 163 passengers on an 83-foot vessel overnight in a scenario that turned into a nightmare.

Ken Maguire, a journalist from Falls Church, Va., was on the ship with his wife and daughters, ages 6 and 9, enjoying their first whale watch, when, he said, the ship hit a thick, bright yellow cable. About 10 minutes earlier, the ship had begun its return trip to Long Wharf, where they were slated to arrive at 4:30 p.m.

“It was a sound like when you’re driving your car and you run over some rocks and you hear the bang on the muffler and kind of know something is wrong,” he said.

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The crew members, who he said looked to be in their early 20s, tried to reach the yellow cable by duct-taping two poles together to try hook it, but that was unsuccessful.

Several hours into the ordeal, a dive team arrived, but after calling for a hacksaw, was unable to free the ship.

The ship, the Cetacea, was about 13 miles east of Nahant, according to the Coast Guard, which sent two cutters, the Tybee and Escanaba, to the scene, as well as a 47-foot motor life boat crew from Gloucester. The cutters remained with the injured vessel through the night.

The cable that snagged the Cetacea was part of Excelerate Energy’s Northeast Gateway Deepwater Port, the Coast Guard said. The deepwater port is a facility where liquefied natural gas tankers can offload gas, which is then piped underwater to shore.

The yellow mooring cable floats on the surface and is marked by buoys, according to a release from Boston Harbor Cruises, which said it is conducting an internal investigation. The Coast Guard is also investigating.

Around sunset, a second boat from Boston Harbor Cruises arrived to try to rescue the passengers, but with 2-foot seas and 12-mile-an-hour winds, that plan was called off. “It was too windy, too choppy,” said Ross Ruddell, a spokesman for the Coast Guard. “We didn’t feel that we could safely transfer that many people.”

When the rescue plan failed, and it was announced that they would not try again until daylight, the mood on the boat shifted, according to Maguire.

There seemed to be no contingency plan, he said, and several passengers were upset that the ordeal had been going on for five hours before they heard any information directly from the captain. Until that point, according to Maguire, their updates were coming from the two biologists who were acting as tour guides for the whale watch. And while he commended the two women for keeping spirits high — “I don’t think they sat down the entire time,” Maguire said — frustration set in.

There were a few raised voices, Maguire said. And there was a lot of vomiting.

“There was an 18-month-old baby that couldn’t keep her food down. One lady threw up at least 15 times. There were people hanging overboard. Others just threw up into bags at their table, then put their heads back down and someone came and got it. It was gross at first, then it became commonplace,” Maguire said.

Coast Guard medical personnel boarded the ship to treat and monitor the sick patients, while the passengers began to settle in for a long night. Some slept. Many did not. Snacks were provided, but no full meals, according to Maguire.

Jeremy Magnan and his wife, Kristen, newlyweds from Milwaukee, were on the first night of their honeymoon. They tried to make the best of it — “I mean, hey, we got to sleep under the stars on the Atlantic Ocean,” Jeremy said. But the boat was rocking, he said, and once the sun set and the sea got choppier, things got ugly on board.

“It became evident who did and did not have their sea legs pretty quickly,” he said.

Around 2 a.m., the passengers were told that a crew of divers, with better equipment, was en route. Around 5:20 a.m., those divers — from the Bunker Hill and Scarlett Isabella — were finally able to free the Cetacea as a group of passengers watching from the deck cheered.

The ship, traveling with only one of its two propellers working, limped back to its dock next to the New England Aquarium just before 8 a.m. Tuesday, escorted by the Tybee.

Passengers were relieved to be back on solid ground, witnesses said, and no one seemed to be in a rush to get back on a boat.

“Kristen’s initial response was, ‘No more boats. We’re done,’ ” Jeremy Magnan said. But he reminded her that they’ve already purchased tickets to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty for the second part of their honeymoon. After that, he said, they’ll take a break for a while.

Maguire said this was his first and last whale watch. “We saw the humpbacks, and we’ll check out YouTube if we want to see some more,” he said. “A hayride is next.”

Boston Harbor Cruises announced it would refund passengers for their tickets, and give them each $500 for their troubles. In addition, they’re also offering each passenger a $100 voucher for another of their cruises, though Maguire said several passengers scoffed at the idea. “I heard somebody say, ‘They’re joking, right? That’s going straight to eBay.’ ”

More content:

Couple spent first night of honeymoon on boat

Photos of the boat

Images and reports from the incident

Video: Reaction to stranded boat

Information about the LNG port

Globe correspondents Kiera Blessing and Claire McNeill contributed to this report. Contact Billy Baker at billybaker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.
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