Chebeaguers Unite to Save Stranded Fisherman

by David R. Hill

Sometimes a community comes together almost spontaneously to do the right thing. I'm not sure this is something that people in New York can understand. Maybe not even in Portland. But we understand it on Chebeague Island.

You can say what you will about supposedly educated people who go windsurfing in a hurricane or pilots with more testosterone than common sense who try to fly a hundred miles on ninety-four miles worth of fuel, but now and then a sensible guy gets in trouble. My cousin Bob Putnam is one of the most prudently, realistically cautious people I know, yet with two days left in the year, he found himself adrift on Casco Bay in a full gale with only a couple of small islands, glorified ledges really, between him and the open Atlantic Ocean, next stop Bermuda.

During the nether week between Christmas and New Years, winter finally decided to descend on the area with a vengeance: Temperatures in the single digits, winds out of the northwest between 45 and 50 knots gusting to hurricane force, windchill well below zero, and seas running six to eight feet. Bob, a commercial fisherman by trade, had safely brought his Sheila Gail to his mooring in Chebeague Island's Johnson Cove late that afternoon and was headed to shore and the warmth of home in his sixteen foot outboard. But then the engine failed, he broke an oar and Chebeague faded into the darkening west as the strength of the wind and seas carried my cousin towards Casco Bay's outer islands.

Distracted by the power outage that darkened Chebeague and the other islands that early evening, Bob's wife Sheila didn't become seriously concerned until about seven o'clock, at which time she alerted her brother-in-law, Bill Putnam, who asked others to join in the search, including the Coast Guard.

At about that time, the Chebeague Transportation Company's ferry Big Squaw was riding out the storm in the friendly lee of Cousins Island. I was ready to go down to the wharf to offer a pot of hot coffee to her crew when I heard the first pleas for help on the VHF radio. Now a crew of four, we set out into the inhospitable night, clearing the deck of ice, readying search lanterns, and donning life jackets so that the rescuers need not be rescued. We stopped by the Chebeague Island Boat Yard to pick up a half dozen of Chebeague's volunteer fire and rescue squad and set out to search the area where we would hope to find Bob. The mood was sullen. Most had participated in marine search and rescue efforts before and all knew how low the odds of success were under such bitter conditions.

The night was star-filled and brilliantly clear. Only the sea smoke (or "vapor," as one old-timer accurately insisted) hampered the many expectant eyes following the piercing beam of the Big Squaw's searchlight. We went along the back side of Sand Island, looked around the northeast point of Hope, and scanned Rogue Island and the other side of Sand. It seemed every whitecap and ice-encrusted ledge looked like the white punt we were seeking. I was reminded of the Rachel's vain search for its lost son in Herman Melville's Moby Dick. The radio carried communications among Andy Todd's Old Salty, Sheila Gail (skippered by Bob's brother Bill) and the recently arrived Coast Guard search vessel. Voices on the radio become distorted by the insistent thrumming of the Caterpillar diesel, but the tension comes through loud and clear. I know I'm getting older when the Coast Guard voices sound like the ink is scarcely dry on their diplomas. And even if most of them sound as if they're eight hundred miles north of home, they do a terrific job for mariners in distress.

The Big Squaw's skipper, Clayton Hawks, decided to swing down toward Stave Island for a pass. I think everybody saw the wreck as soon as the searchlight beam hit it. Half awash and pounding against the rocks, engineless, was what most certainly could have been Bob's punt. About twenty yards away a shadow moved and hearts leapt. Unfortunately, it was just the searchlight playing on a piling. The elation of this discovery was quickly dampened by the obvious questions: Where's Bob? Had he landed with the punt? Was he soaked, unconscious, a victim of hypothermia? We alerted the rest of the fleet of our find and stood by illuminating the wreck, shouting Bob's name, to no avail.

Old Salty and Sheila Gail, with most of the remaining fire and rescue squad aboard, sent a search party ashore, with searchlights from the Big Squaw and the Coast Guard guiding them to the wreck. Their first encouraging discovery was that the wreck had an anchor out, meaning that a controlled, probably safe landing had been purposefully made. Shortly thereafter, the message came over the radio from Tom Calder: "Safe and sound." Bob had found his way to a cabin, where he'd started a fire, heated some soup, and wished he had a way to tell people he was safe and could wait until morning for a ride home. In his exuberance conveying the good news to the Coast Guard, Captain Hawks reported that "the victim was healthy, warm, drinking coffee, and reading his Bible by candlelight!" Not knowing that one shouldn't believe everything heard on the VHF, WCSH and the Press Herald duly reported this as fact.

The happiness and jubilation that filled the Big Squaw on her way home that night make the upcoming New Year celebration pale by comparison. What we were celebrating went far beyond the pleasure of seeing Bob alive and safe; we were rejoicing in the indomitable community spirit that makes Chebeague Island one of the better places in the world to live. I'm not sure that people in New York would understand. Maybe not even in Portland.

This article was originally printed in The Shopping Notes on January 3, 1995 and is reprinted here by permission of the author and publisher.