Red Cross honors Island Good Samaritans

Susie Silva of Cape Air places a medal around the neck of J.T. Maher as Caleb Nicholson looks on. Neal Farrell, the third men in the boat that day, was not present. — Photo courtesy of Red Cross

Last week, three Vineyard men were among 14 individuals and groups, 34 people in all, honored at the annual Cape Cod & Islands Heroes Breakfast in Hyannis.

Last September, 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.

It was a Monday, the second day of the 67th Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby.

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.

As the men prepared to leave the area about 5 pm as sea conditions worsened, 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 in an interview last September. “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.

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

The Island fishermen quickly went to the rescue. 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 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 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 at the time.

“These three men didn’t hesitate to help those in need, despite the dangerous conditions they faced themselves,” Hilary Greene, Executive Director for the Cape Cod and Islands Chapter of the American Red Cross said. “This act of selflessness is a perfect example of the Red Cross mission — helping people when they need it most.”

The annual breakfast event “recognizes heroes throughout our community who perform extraordinary acts of courage by saving someone’s life, helping in the rescue of someone in need, or who has committed countless hours of service to an organization or community,” according to the Red Cross.

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