Martha’s Vineyard family, Island mourn lost fisherman

Luke Gurney of Oak Bluffs died Monday, fishing off Nantucket. This week, Islanders joined in support for his wife and two young sons.

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Fisherman Craig Munsell wraps a memento around the wreath placed on the hauler.— Sam Moore

Luke Gurney of Oak Bluffs had no regrets about his decision to put aside his carpentry tools to become a commercial fisherman. Those closest to him said the well-liked father of two, who grew up in New Bedford, died Monday doing what he loved — fishing in the waters around Martha’s Vineyard.

Mr. Gurney, 48, and his first mate and close friend, Ricky LeBlanc, were setting conch pots approximately a quarter-mile west of Nantucket’s Great Point Monday from No Regrets, Mr. Gurney’s 42-foot open-stern fishing boat. The bottom of each wire mesh pot was encased in concrete to help it remain on the bottom, and each pot was attached to a main trawl line.

In an effort to thwart frequent poaching of his pots by other fishermen, Mr. Gurney did not use buoys or the floating poles with pennants attached, called high flyers, to mark each end of his trawl line. Instead, he found his lines through a combination of electronics and skill.

As the boat steamed along and pots dropped over the side in approximately 20 feet of water, Mr. Gurney became entangled in a line and was swept overboard. Despite his desperate efforts, Mr. LeBlanc was unable to halt the running line and pull his friend back into the boat.

Coast Guard crews and local agencies began searching off Nantucket after receiving a report at about 9:15 am that a fisherman had been swept into the sea.

A multiagency search afloat and in the air ended about 1 pm that afternoon, when the Coast Guard announced that rescue crews had located and recovered Mr. Gurney’s body.

“Our thoughts go out to the family of the victim and the entire fishing community who are affected by this tragedy,” Commander Marcus Gherardi, chief of response for Coast Guard Sector Southeastern New England, said. “Anytime we are not able to accomplish our goal of saving lives, we are deeply saddened, as we also take it to heart.”

The search lasted nearly four hours, and included a 47-foot motor lifeboat crew and 29-foot rescue boat crew from Station Brant Point, a 42-foot rescue boat crew from Station Chatham, an Air Station Cape Cod HC-144 Ocean Sentry crew, and an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew. Other agencies involved in the search included the State Police, Harwich Regional Dive Team, Nantucket harbormaster, Chatham harbormaster, Chatham Fire Department Dive Team, and three Good Samaritans, according to a Coast Guard press release.

On Tuesday morning, more than 50 pots sat neatly stacked on the stern of No Regrets as she lay tied up at Owen Park dock in Vineyard Haven Harbor. Lines were neatly coiled at the side of each. A small bouquet of red and white flowers on top of a conch pot memorialized the tragedy that had befallen the close-knit Island fishing community.

On Wednesday morning, several fishermen constructed a large handmade wreath of holly and hung it on the No Regrets winch arm.

Fisherman Jeffrey Canha, whose boat Done Deal was moored near No Regrets and who knew Mr. Gurney well, said Islanders who want to pay their respects may leave mementos on the wreath.

Fisherman Jason Robinson was the first. He put a purple and white bracelet on the wreath.

“His boat used to be purple and white,” he said.

No regrets
“It’s still so unreal to me,” Robyn Gurney said Monday about her husband’s death. Ms. Gurney said she has been overwhelmed by the support of the community and the outpouring of affection for her husband.

“Luke was doing what he loved, and he loved what he did,” she said. “He was living his life the way he always wanted to — that’s why his boat was named No Regrets, because you don’t want to live your life saying, I wish I would’ve, I wish I could’ve, and that’s what he was doing. I don’t think you could ask for anything more than that — except more time.”

The two met growing up as teenagers in New Bedford. But it was not until Luke moved to Martha’s Vineyard and invited Robyn to visit the Island where his parents had a vacation home that a romance blossomed.

A special education teacher at the West Tisbury School, she said she received a call from a friend, a seafood dealer who bought conch from her husband, with the news that her husband was overboard. She left school.

“I was driving home, but I didn’t really know where to go,” she said. “So I went to the Tisbury Police, and they were extremely helpful to me and just found out what I needed to find out, and got me up to the Coast Guard station in Menemsha.”

Police Officer Scott Ogden, a friend, drove her to the station, where she was met by Chilmark Police Chief Brian Cioffi and Coast Guard officials. It was not until she arrived at the Coast Guard station that she was officially told in person that her husband was dead. She said Chief Cioffi and the Coast Guard officials were kind and supportive, for which she was very grateful.

Her two sons, Jacob, 13, and Sam, 11, students at the Oak Bluffs School, were unaware of what had happened. Ms. Gurney said school officials made sure no news reached the boys until she could be there and speak with her sons, which she did privately. “Then I brought them home.”

Asked about the two boys, Ms. Gurney said they are doing as well as may be expected, and she credited her husband.

“They’re strong like their dad,” she said. “He was a really good role model for them, and they’re being strong; they have their moments, but on the whole they’re doing extremely well. We’ve talked about it. Their father was proud of them and who they are, and he had such a vision of who they would become, and we just have to honor that and just keep moving forward and do that.”

Best of the best
Josh Gurney, 45, of Mattapoisett, Mr. Gurney’s younger brother, a physical therapist, said he received a call from his mother Monday morning that Luke was overboard.

“That was when the nightmare began,” he told The Times, as he stood on the Owen Park dock Wednesday morning. He and his sister, mother, and father arrived on the Island immediately: “We just came to be with them.”

John and Linda Gurney own a vacation home next to their son in Oak Bluffs. Josh said Luke “was our rock.”

Josh said his brother grew up fishing: “When you wanted to catch fish, you went to Luke. He had a passion for the water.”

A carpenter, he moved to Martha’s Vineyard, but the pull of the sea was too strong to keep him on land. After working on other boats, about eight years ago he bought a boat and began fishing for conch.

Fishing success can come and go like the tides. “This was a banner year for Luke. He was doing the best he ever had, and had just overhauled the boat,” Josh said. “He and his mate were doing so well, and then this happens.”

Josh said Luke’s first mate was just “devastated” by the tragedy. “He’s like a brother to my brother. He wouldn’t have wanted anybody else fishing with him … he lost his life to what he loved.”

Josh said he has been amazed by the outpouring of support, and, struggling to compose himself, he said, “I couldn’t imagine a better place for my sister-in-law and my nephews to be.”

John Gurney said the reaction of the Island community has helped to temper his family’s loss. “My wife and I and Robyn have had nonstop for the last day and a half people bringing food and giving us their condolences and just saying, ‘We, I, loved your son. He was one of the finest people that I have ever known’ — on and on and on — and the testimony on the website that someone set up for us. You look at the words that these people are saying. I mean, my wife and I are constantly crying to hear such nice things said about my son — I knew him and I loved him, and I knew what he was made of, but to hear it from others, it was helpful in this particular time.”

Late Tuesday, friend Erin Muldoon set up a fund titled “Support Luke Gurney’s family in the days to come” on YouCaring, a social media crowdfunding site. As of late Wednesday, more than $44,000 was pledged to support the family. Many people left messages.

Nick Bologna of Aquinnah wrote, “Luke was certainly one of the best of the best. Luke was a talker. Not the kind you dreaded seeing and avoided for fear of long, self-centered conversation. He was the kind of talker you loved to see and engage with. You never wanted the conversation to end with Luke. He remembered so many personal details of your life, no matter how long it had been since you last saw him.

“That always amazed me, every time we talked. He was always so happy to see you and truly happy for what was going on in your life. He also had so many wonderful stories to share. Luke was also one of the hardest working guys I’ve known … The Island has truly lost one of the greatest souls to ever call this place home. My heart goes out to his entire family. I know this Island will take care of Robyn and the kids. May we set a record with our contributions.”