Tuna fever can be a fatal disease for those who venture too far

Happy to be rescued and alive, Kevin Jackson takes hold of a line thrown to him from the scalloper Patience. — Photo courtesy of John Majewski

There is no rise in body temperature associated with this fever. A doctor would laugh if you described the symptoms that include a sense of excitement and anticipation. But make no mistake about it, tuna fever can be fatal.

But for a VHF radio, an alert captain, and a prayer answered, three men who left Falmouth to fish for bluefin tuna south of Martha’s Vineyard on Saturday might be the latest victims of a fever that can cloud good judgment on the water.

Saturday, three friends — Mitchell Buck of Falmouth, Kevin Jackson of Gloucester, and John Majewski of Wrentham — left Woods Hole in the Cynthia Z, Mr. Buck’s older 20-foot center-console Seacraft powered by a 140-horse Mariner engine for a day of fishing.

The men know the water. Mitchell is a coastal engineer with the Woods Hole Group, a well-known marine consulting company. Kevin is a field scientist for the Northeast Fisheries Science Center.

The day was cloudy with south-southwest winds about 10 knots. Sea conditions were relatively calm.

“The plan was to run out through Muskeget channel to track down some bonito, then work our way a little further south of the island in the hopes of running into some school bluefin,” Kevin wrote in an account of the trip posted on a fishing forum on the website striped-bass.com under the title: “Life, luck and the benefits of being prepared.”

Maybe 15 seconds

Muskeget channel was a little rough, but that is not unusual, and the seas soon smoothed out. The men noticed a peculiar smell. They stopped and examined the engine, and finding nothing amiss and the engine running fine, they continued on their way.

There was a small fleet of boats off the Hooter, the southeast corner of Martha’s Vineyard. The men trolled crystal minnows and picked up a bonito. When they began catching bluefish they decided to head southwest in pursuit of bluefin tuna.

“We worked our way a few miles short of the inside fingers and set out our spread,” Kevin wrote. “For the next few hours we just trolled with no results … I noticed that the boat was a little unresponsive, difficult to maintain course, but the Cynthia Z has notoriously stiff steering so I didn’t think anything of it.”

The men decided to start back. Low on gas, Mitchell opened up the storage in the stern to retrieve his extra gas tanks to fill up.

The bilge was full of water. The peculiar smell they had noticed earlier was the bilge pump burning out.

John started tinkering with the pump to see if he could get it working. Kevin made an impromptu bailer out of a water jug, but found he was bailing against every fifth or sixth wave as it washed in over the transom.

“And, to add insult to injury, it was right around this point that 40- to 50-inch bluefin started erupting on halfbeaks all around the boat,” Kevin wrote, testifying to the fact that even in a dire situation a true fisherman thinks about fish.

The men decided to start the engine and head for Menemsha to pump out and refuel. They moved everything heavy into the bow of the boat.

“I cannot overstate how quickly the following events transpired. Mitch tried to get the boat up to speed, but as soon as he did the water that was in the boat rushed to the stern,” Kevin said.

“The entire stern immediately went underwater, and the boat turtled to port. Mitch grabbed his Spot GPS device, and as he ran to the bow the hatch that contained our PFDs opened up. Thanks to his quick thinking he managed to rip them out and throw them into the water. We all threw ourselves off the boat, not wanting to be caught underneath.

“The boat fully capsized, and immediately went bow up and vanished underneath the surface. The entire sinking took maybe fifteen seconds.”

VHF lifeline

The men were floating in a small debris field. All their fishing equipment and safety gear was in the boat now resting on the bottom under more than 100 feet of water.”There was no time to grab flares, emergency equipment, or anything of the like,” Kevin said. “One always hears that when things go bad they do so in a hurry. But it can’t be fully understood until it’s been experienced.”

They knew they were in a lightly trafficked spot and would be lucky to have anyone come by. They had no good means of signaling any passing boat traffic.

Mitchell Buck had a Spot personal safety device, essentially a small GPS tracking device. However, he did not know how to fully operate it and accidentally turned the device off before it could transmit a full message or any GPS coordinates.

The men were treading water out of sight of land and out of sight of anyone who might be able to help.

“Miraculously, placed there by the hand of God, the handheld VHF radio somehow broke free of the sinking ship and floated to the surface just feet from us,” John said in the narration of a video posted on YouTube. “I grabbed the radio and made a distress call: Mayday. Mayday. Mayday. This is the Cynthia Z. Mayday. Mayday.”

Mitchell had a VHF radio but the battery had died earlier in the day. John’s had a full charge. It had been clipped onto the boat’s windshield. “Had it not come free, we would likely still be out there at this moment,” Kevin said.Coast Guard Sector Southeast New England was monitoring radio traffic. The men provided as much information as they could but the chop made it difficult to speak clearly into the unit and there was some initial miscommunication.

The Coast Guard launched a 47-foot motor lifeboat from Station Menemsha and an MH-60T Jayhawk helicopter from Air Station Cape Cod.

The Coast Guard issued an “urgent marine information broadcast” (UMIB) over channel 16 to notify all boaters in the area that three people were in the water and required assistance”It was then that I noticed two commercial fishing vessels south of us,” Kevin said. “One was a blue dragger with a white wheelhouse about a half mile away, the other a black scalloper about a mile and a half off. We relayed this information to the Coast Guard and they issued a broadcast on channel 16. The dragger ignored the broadcast and continued underway, but the scalloper, F/V Patience, responded.”

Mayday, Mayday

On Saturday, Captain Tom Quintan was at the helm of his 101-foot scallop boat Patience returning to New Bedford with about 18,000 pounds of sea scallops after six days at sea on George’s Bank.

Expecting heavy weekend recreational boat traffic in Vineyard and Nantucket Sounds, Captain Quintan had decided to avoid dodging sailboats and powerboats and set a course that would take him around Gay Head on the west end of Martha’s Vineyard. He was about eight miles south of the Vineyard.

“The first thing I heard was the mayday,” captain Quintan told me in a telephone conversation Monday. “And on the weekend the first thing I assumed was that it was a hoax.”

The fact that a veteran fisherman would jump to that conclusion is a sobering reminder of the ripple effect from every hoax call. Unfortunately, hoax calls do occur, and they waste valuable Coast Guard resources and put people’s lives at risk.

“Then they said they could visually see two draggers south of them. That’s when I knew it was an actual situation,” Captain Quintan said. “And I immediately turned due north. I knew it was us because there was nobody out there, which surprised me on a weekend.”

Surprisingly, the other dragger continued on its course. Whether he did not hear the transmission or having heard it, assumed the Coast Guard and the Patience had it under control, is not known.

John used his VHF radio to direct the fishing boat to where he and his companions floated in the ocean. Once on board the Patience the men knew they were safe.

Lessons to learn

Captain Quintan told me he complimented the men on maintaining their composure. “They didn’t panic, and they gave me good instructions. They made it easy for me to do the search and rescue,” he said.

The fact that John had brought his own VHF radio and had it when his boat went down was the result of an afterthought. He almost did not bring it.

A captain for 20 years and fisherman for 30, Captain Quintan said the rescue provides a reminder to other recreational boaters to carry proper equipment and stay calm even under trying circumstances. “A lot of times you’ll get a mayday and a distress and they’re in such panic that they don’t give you any coherent information,” he said. “And if there’s one lesson that gets learned from this, it’s always bring a handheld VHF.”

Increasingly, many boaters rely only on cell phones. But cell phones have limited range and are not monitored by the Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard’s new Rescue 21 search and rescue system can pick up a signal from a one-watt marine VHF radio and provide a line of bearing out to 20 nautical miles no matter how short the duration of a distress call, and in many cases identify the name of the vessel where a call originated.

Over a few whiskeys, Kevin, Mitchell and John reviewed what they did right and what they did wrong.

Kevin said the first and most glaring mistake was not combing the boat once they noticed a peculiar smell. “If we noticed the bilge pump was out, we would have called the trip right then and there, and would have been fine,” he said. Once they realized that we were potentially in distress, at the very least they should have recorded their exact coordinates.

And they all should have known exactly how to use the safety equipment on board, including the Spot. The flares should have been taken out of the center console the second they saw water in the hull, and they all should have put on PFDs.”So what would we do differently? I mean, the obvious statement is turn around if you have even the slightest thought that something might be wrong,” Kevin said.

“Finally, I’m going to be making a ditch kit. A floating, waterproof bag that contains a waterproof VHF, PLB, flares, lights, strobes, signal mirrors, whistles, etc. I want to have something that I can bring on any boat that I sail on, regardless of the equipment that is already onboard. We had everything we needed except the time to retrieve it.”

The Coast Guard 47-foot motor lifeboat picked the men up from the Patience and brought them to Station Menemsha, where they were debriefed. The ride home, by VTA bus and SSA ferry, provided a counterweight to their adventure.

“The UMIB was critical in locating a vessel nearby to render immediate assistance to the three men,” Scott Backholm, command duty officer at Sector Southeastern New England, said. “Good Samaritans are a force multiplier to rescue personnel and provide immediate assistance to people in distress.”

That is the dry, official description. There is a more emotional side to this rescue story. Captain Quintan said that one of the men told his mate that when the Patience made a course change and appeared to be heading straight for them, the feeling of elation could not be described.

“Of course,” Captain Quintan said knowingly, “they knew they were going to be found. I have two grandfathers who were lost at sea so to be able help somebody like that was really nice.”

Captain Quintan described the moments after he got the three men on board his scalloper:

“When we got them on board they were happy as larks. One of them came right up to me and shook my hand and said, ‘Thank you for saving my life.’

“And I said, ‘Hey guy, thank God. I’m a Christian. I picked you up because God values life.’

“And then he said, ‘Oh my goodness, I said a prayer just as the boat was sinking, right before it went under, that somebody would pick us up.’

“Well, ‘I’m the answer to your prayer,’ I said.”

Potential world record bass

On The Water Magazine is reporting that Greg Myerson of Westbrook, Connecticut, caught a potential world record 81.88 pound striped bass on an eel from a boat in Long Island Sound last week. That is about 3 pounds heavier than the current record of 78.8 and about a small coyote heavier than recent Bass and Bluefish Derby winners.

Elastic moorings

Jay Baker, Director of Mass Bays Program, will present his work on eelgrass restoration with conservation elastic moorings at the Tisbury Senior Center at 5 pm, Thursday, August 11.

Mr. Baker is co-author of “Use of Conservation Moorings as a Component of Eelgrass Restoration in two Massachusetts Harbors.”

The Vineyard community is exploring the habitat and security benefits of elastic moorings, according to Jo-Ann Taylor of the Martha’s Vineyard Commmission. Elastic moorings eliminate the scour that disturbs the bottom when a heavy anchor chain swings on a traditional mooring.

The Martha’s Vineyard Commission and Tisbury Waterways, Inc. is co-sponsoring the presentation. TWI’s annual meeting will follow the presentation.Call Ms. Taylor at 508-693-3453 for more information.