Fate and the ‘fishing disease’ averted Derby tragedy

Four hours after a 70-mph gust launched him into Menemsha Channel, Peter Jackson was saved by one of the few fishermen who ventured out that stormy night.

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Fishing gear on the work truck is a telltale sign that David Sprague has "the fishing disease." — Stacey Rupolo

This Thanksgiving, Peter Jackson of Edgartown will most certainly be giving thanks that West Tisbury resident David Sprague has what he calls “the fishing disease,” the same disease that nearly took Jackson’s life in the early morning hours of Sept. 21.

Mr. Sprague, 40, fishes four or five days a week during the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass & Bluefish Derby, from 3 am until dawn, hours that don’t conflict with his duties as co-owner of Nelson Mechanical Design and family time with his wife Sarah and their five children.

On that Thursday morning, Mr. Sprague woke around 2:30 am as Tropical Storm Jose arrived in full force, lashing the Vineyard with 60-mph winds. “I thought about not going; I hate fishing in the wind, but there were plenty of times during this Derby where we had some really windy nights and I would find a hole and get into fish,” he told The Times. “It’s the Derby, you have to be persistent.”

As he sipped coffee at his kitchen table, listening to the wind howl, checking the weather app on his phone, Mr. Sprague made a fateful decision to head to the Aquinnah side of Menemsha Channel, about 200 feet from where, unbeknownst to anyone, Peter Jackson had been clinging to a barnacle-encrusted pylon for three hours.

Earlier that evening, Mr. Jackson, 73, one of the most experienced fishermen on Martha’s Vineyard, was the only person fishing Menemsha dock. “I was standing on the pier, next to my truck, which was blocking the wind, so it wasn’t too bad,” he said. The only other people he saw that night left shortly after he arrived, telling him the fishing was dead.

But it didn’t take long for a fish to hit Mr. Jackson’s plug, and for his night to turn into a nightmare.

 

Windswept

“I hooked a good fish, and I was about halfway down the ramp to the small pier, and when I turned to work the fish, the wind hit me and I did a flip off the dock. That water was running so fast it could have made a 10-pound fish feel like a 40-pounder. I don’t know what it was, but he ended up with my rod, so he’s probably fishing himself,” Mr. Jackson said with a smoky laugh.

Initially, he thought he’d be able to climb back on the dock. Then a stomach-sinking reality set in. “I thought it was no big deal, until I looked around and everything was about eight feet above me,” he said. “I figured somebody would come down the dock to fish, but an hour later I didn’t see anybody.”

Under normal circumstances, it wouldn’t have been long before another fisherman would pass by, but that night, few braved the horizontal rain and fierce winds that drowned out his calls for help.
“I saw two cars pull up on the Lobsterville parking lot,” Mr. Jackson said. “I saw their headlamps and thought they were going to start fishing. I yelled as loud as I could, but they couldn’t hear me with all that wind. They just got back into their cars and drove off. A little later two cars came down by the Galley, I was hollering, but they didn’t even get out, they turned around pretty quickly. Then a little later a guy came down to check on his boat on the [Aquinnah] ramp. I yelled again but then he got back in his truck. When I saw his tail lights fade, I knew I was in trouble. By then it was probably two, three in the morning. I’d shouted at every car I saw. Didn’t do any good. My throat was getting really sore from hollering. I couldn’t holler much more.”

His arms tired as the hours passed, but letting go of the piling was not an option in the fast-moving water.

A dangling piece of rope provided a modicum of relief. “There was a piece of rope on the pier side that I grabbed,” Mr. Jackson said. “I tied a loop in it, but I couldn’t get my leg high enough to get it in the loop. But I held on to the loop so at least the barnacles weren’t digging into my arms. I could also let my legs go from the pylon once in awhile.”

Mr. Jackson said he typically doesn’t tell people where and when he’s going fishing. His daughter was at his home, but since it wasn’t unusual for him to be out all night fishing, there was no real cause for alarm. “I think she tried to reach me on my cell phone at some point, but it was in my pocket,” he said. “Wet cell phones don’t work too well.”

According to hypothermia charts, in water temperatures between 60° and 70°, a person begins to lose dexterity within 30 to 40 minutes, and can be rendered unconscious in as little as two hours. Mr. Jackson credits his Grundéns rain gear for keeping his body temperature up high enough to stay conscious during his four-hour ordeal. “I kept moving my legs and moving around to keep the blood circulating, but I couldn’t let go of that piling because that tide would have washed me out the opening,” he said. “I couldn’t swim with all that gear on, and if I’d tried to swim across the channel I would have wound up in Woods Hole.”

 

Headlamp in the water

“When I got to West Basin I was sitting in my truck, looking at the whitecaps, listening to the wind howling, and thinking, ‘This is not going to be fun,’” Mr. Sprague said.

He again considered packing it in, but instead decided to rig up. “I was outside of my truck, trying to tie some fresh lines, and I was having trouble just doing that,” Mr. Sprague said. “I was instantly cold, I hadn’t worn enough layers, and I thought, ‘This is ridiculous,’ and I decided to find a less windy spot. As I was about to get in my truck, I heard what sounded like a call for help. There’s so much noise from the wind, I thought I was probably hearing things. I thought I probably just needed to get some sleep. But then when I heard ‘Help me,’ I knew I wasn’t hearing things.”

Sprague first scanned Lobsterville Beach from the jetty. Seeing no one, he looked across the channel and saw a headlamp under the Menemsha dock, at water level.

“I yelled to him that I could hear him, and said help was on the way,” he said. “I can’t remember what he said, at that point, everything started going really fast. All I knew is there was a voice behind the headlamp of someone in the water.”

“He told me he was getting help, and then I saw him drive off. I was hoping he wasn’t lying,” Mr. Jackson said. “I’d been in the water about four hours at that point. I was really tired.”

Mr. Sprague said he first Googled Coast Guard Station Menemsha but didn’t see an emergency phone number, so he called 911.

“I realized I was probably the closest person to this guy, even with the drive all the way around the pond, so I started booking it over there,” he said. “I was probably doing about 55, and in the back of my mind I’m hoping I don’t hit a deer. By the time I got there, three Coasties, all in basketball shorts and T-shirts and flip-flops, had found him hanging onto one of the pilings. He was obviously afraid to let go and get swept away.

“I made small talk with him while they went to get a life ring and a ladder. He told me what happened, and I joked that it must have been a pretty good fish to drag him in. He said he’d gotten there about 10:30 or so, and I’m thinking, ‘Jesus, he’s been in the water for four hours.’ You’re in 60° water for four hours you’re going to get tired, and fall asleep and you’re done for. It’s a good thing he wasn’t wearing waders.”

Peter Jackson — File photo

Coast Guard personnel threw Jackson the life ring so he could let go of the piling, and then guided him to the ladder, then dragged him onto the dock.

“Once they got him on the dock he literally collapsed on his back,” Mr. Sprague said. “He laid there for a good 15 minutes. He sat in his truck for a while. I found a hooded sweatshirt from my company in my truck; it didn’t smell that great between fishing and work, but it was dry and warm.”

Although he was physically exhausted, Mr. Jackson said he didn’t sleep when he got home. “It gave me a lot to think about,” he said. “It’s a funny feeling to feel that helpless. I probably shouldn’t have been out there, but that’s when I like to fish. Bad weather is the best time to fish.”

Karmic payback was almost immediate for Mr. Sprague. Later that morning, he caught a bass that won third place in the daily. “It wasn’t very big, but apparently just me, Peter Jackson, and the two people who beat me out for first and second place on the daily, were the only people crazy enough to go fishing that night,” he said.

He landed the fish at almost the exact spot where Mr. Jackson went into the water.

“I’ve been there probably two dozen times since that incident, and I keep a step or two back farther than I used to, and I don’t wear waders on a dock anymore, that’s for sure,” Mr. Sprague said. “You never think something like that can happen to you, then this guy who’s been fishing for 50, 60 years ends up in the drink. It gives you pause.”

Soon after that night, Mr. Jackson said, Stuart Spector of Edgartown gave him a waterproof sleeve for his cell phone. He also bought a whistle that he keeps with him at all times.

“Four hours is a long time to hold on,” he said. “Everybody said I have nine lives, and I must have used them up by now, but I guess I haven’t.”

It turned out to be a good Derby for Mr. Jackson. He won first place in the senior division for boat bluefish, with a 16-pounder he landed while fishing with his friend Donnie Benefit.

“I’m a firm believer that things happen for a reason, like something making me stubborn enough to go out on a night where I normally just wouldn’t go out,” Mr. Sprague said. “If it’s the Derby and my body lets me get away with four hours of sleep, I’m going fishing. When you get on a fish, it’s a thrill every time. It never gets old. It’s the fishing disease.”