Tragedy at sea spurs a father to act

Hoping to spare others from the calamity that struck his family, John Gurney implores fishermen to prepare for the worst.

John Gurney, whose son drowned in a fishing accident, is speaking out in the hopes of helping other fishermen. — Barry Stringfellow

It’s said the most unspeakable grief is that of a parent losing a child. John Gurney has been dealing with that grief since last June, when his son Luke, a well-liked Island conch fisherman with a wife and two young sons, drowned in a tragic accident when he was ensnared by a trawl line and swept overboard.

Last week, Mr. Gurney spoke to The Times about the 11 months that have passed since that horrible day.

In a conversation punctuated with an occasional laugh and silences of abject sorrow, Mr. Gurney, a gregarious man who looks younger than his 73 years, talked about his love for his son, who was also his business partner and one of his closest friends. He talked about Luke’s love for his work, for his family and his friends. He reminisced about the hundreds of people who spoke to him at Luke’s celebration of life at the Portuguese-American Club, where he heard about the many good deeds his son had quietly done over the years, expecting nothing in return.

And he talked about how his son’s death has compelled him to make a simple, fervent appeal to commercial and recreational fishermen — to carry a tethered knife at all times, and to train for the worst.

Seconds to act

Mr. Gurney said his endless analyzing of Luke’s death led to his decision to get the word out.

“After his death, I went through a long period where all I could think about was the loss,” he said. “After all my obsessing and analysis, it was clear to me that it’s up to the individual to save themselves. That window after you’re entangled is so, so, small. My son went over in less than three seconds. You can’t depend on someone else. I concluded the main thing is that tethered knife. It’s got to be there, at the ready, not used for anything else. It has to be sharp, so it can cut through a half-inch line in one stroke. All the fishermen carry knives. But if you have a knife and lose it because it wasn’t tethered, you’re toast.”

Mr. Gurney got his message out for the first time at a two-day safety training course for Island commercial fishermen in April, organized by Fishing Partnership Support Services.

“I didn’t know if I really belonged at this training session, but I convinced myself that it was a good idea,” he said. “I thought the message might resonate because they all knew Luke. I told my wife, if there’s one commercial or recreational fisherman who hears this story and takes it to heart, it’s well worth it. This one issue is paramount to me.”

Mr. Gurney said he found out about the event after Robyn, his daughter-in-law and Luke’s widow, saw it advertised online. Staff at Fishing Partnership Support Services immediately took him up on his offer to speak.

Then doubt quickly set in. “I thought, ‘Why am I exposing myself to this? Do I really belong there?’ he said. “But when I got there, I knew it was the right thing. Maybe that was my son telling me to do it; I don’t know.”

Until he retired in 2000, Mr. Gurney, who owns homes in Oak Bluffs and Mattapoisett, was the vice president of clinical services at South Coast Hospital. He is also a registered nurse. He said his medical background informs his message.

“That first breath of salt water, you get laryngeal spasm, your vocal cords [contract] and they’re not letting anything in any more, air or water, and you suffocate,” he said. “A lot of situations fishermen train for where you have a little bit of time to react, maybe get a message off on the radio. Man overboard with a line can be saved by one person, themselves. That’s the message I wanted to get across. Maybe my son hit his head and was unconscious. I don’t know until I see him on the other side.”

A tether should be made with heavy fishing line. Mr. Gurney said. He estimates that 42 inches is a good length, but it depends on the individual. “It needs to be long enough to get it from your chest to your leg,” he said.

He also stressed the importance of training for an entanglement in a controlled environment. “They practice getting in survival suits; it’s the same thing,” he said. “When you’re in a controlled setting, maybe at the dock or at the Y, have someone pull you over and cut yourself out. Have that experience to fall back on. You don’t want to be learning that day.”

Perilous profession

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, commercial fishing has long ranked as one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States, with a fatality rate 29 times higher than the national average. Man-overboard events account for roughly a quarter of those deaths.

While weather is often a factor, the sea can take a fisherman at any time. Luke Gurney’s fatal accident occurred on a cloudless summer day, with ocean conditions at their most benign.

“Luke was always so cautious, he was always looking out for his mate,” Mr. Gurney said. “He was very fastidious with his lines. His pots were always in tight stack. But it’s a dangerous job. It only takes a split-second for something to go wrong.”

Mr. Gurney was actively involved with his son’s business, painting and prepping the boat for the new season, filling in as a mate on occasion, helping develop a business plan, and providing start-up funding when Luke got his own boat — No Regrets — and conch fishing license in 2012: “We knew he would be successful. He had so much energy and desire.”

Mr. Gurney said he takes some solace in knowing his son died while following his passion. “He’d always wanted to be a commercial fisherman,” he said. “From the time he was 3 years old, he never lost the desire to fish. He was always happiest when he was on the water. Part of the appeal of conch fishing was that it’s a day fishery, so he could be home every night with his family.”

Luke also had a passion for teaching, his father said. “He was the consummate teacher. He loved talking to people at the Meet the Fleet events, especially to the kids.”

Now John Gurney is doing the teaching. “I’m willing to talk about this anywhere,” he said. “Without that knife, you don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell. If you don’t do it for yourself, do it for your family. The turmoil our family has gone through is unlike anything I thought I’d ever experience. It has been beyond explainable.”