Derby fishermen save three off Gay Head on the last drift

The three rescuers posed for a photo on calmer waters. From left to right: JT Maher. Neal Farrell and Caleb Nicholson. — Photo courtesy of Caleb Nicholson

Three New Bedford fishermen who ventured too far from home in too small a boat can be thankful that the 67th Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby began Sunday. Had it not, their Island rescuers might not have decided to take Monday off and go fishing off Gay Head.

Caleb Nicholson of Oak Bluffs, Neal Farrell of Vineyard Haven, and John Thomas “JT” Maher of Edgartown were fishing for bass and bluefish off the green bell buoy about a mile from Gay Head in the “Sea Dog II,” Mr. Nicholson’s 30-foot Grady White.

The stretch of water off the western end of Martha’s Vineyard, an area that includes the notorious Devil’s Bridge, is known for big fish. But the strong tidal currents that attract those fish, when combined with stiff wind, can create treacherous sea conditions in an instant.

The Island fishermen left Oak Bluffs harbor and arrived about 10 am. They began drifting eels and bunker hoping for a derby winning bass or blue. There were several boats but the fleet thinned as the winds picked up out of the north and the sea conditions worsened.

“It was rough,” Mr. Maher told The Times in a telephone call Tuesday.

As the men prepared to leave about 5 pm, they noticed that one small boat with three men aboard they had seen throughout the day was no longer visible.

“We didn’t think much about it,” Mr. Maher said. “We didn’t put two and two together, we just figured they left.”

It is a truism of fishing that few fishermen pack it in without making “one more cast.” The men decided to motor up to the green can and make one more drift in the current.

Mr. Maher saw three men in the rough water clinging to a white Igloo cooler. They had no life preservers or flotation of any kind. “They were screaming and yelling,” Mr. Maher said. “Even when we started to go toward them they were screaming and yelling in a panic.”

One man could not swim. His companions were struggling to keep him afloat as all three clung to the cooler in the churning sea.

“It was pretty unbelievable,” Mr. Maher said, as he recounted the rescue. “When you are looking at it, when you see three people in the water, you almost don’t believe it.”

Mr. Nicholson maneuvered the boat to avoid running over the men in the water. Mr. Maher threw a line to the men to pull them in. “One guy let go and started swimming towards the boat and kind of lost his energy,” Mr. Nicholson said. “I grabbed one of our floating devices and threw it to him, and he put it under him to keep himself afloat.”

They hauled the men onboard, one at a time. One man was crying. Another called it a miracle. “It was pretty dramatic,” Mr. Maher said.

The Islanders provided dry clothing and fresh water. “We tried to get them as warm as we could,” Mr. Nicholson said. The Coast Guard was notified.

The men were Portuguese, out of New Bedford. Only one man could speak English. They had been in the water about 45 minutes to one hour. They had been fishing for bass and bluefish. From what they described, and the Islanders could understand, they had been anchored up all day and when they went to start the engine the anchor line caught around the prop and the current pulled the boat under in the strong running seas. The men attempted to use a knife to cut the line but there was not enough time.

“Their boat went down, it was probably a 20- or 22-foot boat. He said the boat went down like in two minutes,” Mr. Maher said. “There were like six foot seas out there. We were getting beat up all day. Everything was ripping. The wind, the waves, the current.”

The Islanders dropped the men off in Menemsha Harbor where ambulances and police waited. They did not learn their names. “A handshake and it was all over,” Mr. Maher said.

Then the men pounded their way back to Oak Bluffs harbor.

“My boat handled it pretty well,” Mr. Nicholson said, “but they should not have been fishing out there in that smaller boat.”

Chief Jason Olsen of Station Menemsha said the Coast Guard provided the men with Tyvek suits to wear and ferry tickets and drove them to the Steamship Authority terminal.

For Mr. Nicholson, co-owner of Contemporary Landscapes, the scene was familiar. In July 2007, he and a group of family members aboard a charter boat helped rescue a fisherman thrown overboard off the southeast corner of the Vineyard.

Asked how they did fishing on Tuesday, Mr. Maher said, “We didn’t catch anything.” Not quite true.