Woman rescued from Norton Point opening
When Trustees of Reservations ranger Peter McGuire got to the Norton Point opening Thursday morning, the situation was so dire, he said a prayer.
A woman rowing an eight-foot dinghy was losing the struggle against a strong current rushing south through the breach into the open Atlantic beyond.
"She was losing," Mr. McGuire said. "Then the skiff started to swamp, and she was in the water."
Soon, she was separated from the capsized skiff. Through his binoculars, Mr. McGuire could see only the swimmer's head bobbing in the choppy ocean.
"She was 300 to 400 yards out, getting pulled out by the rip," Mr. McGuire said.
It was about that time that help arrived. The woman, Andrea Nusbaum, visiting Chappaquiddick from Los Angeles, was finally able to get ashore.
"Lucky, lucky, lucky," said Edgartown harbormaster Charlie Blair. It was sheer happenstance that he and his assistant were able to respond immediately.
"It just happened to be that everybody was ready to rock," Mr. Blair said. They got to the scene in 12 minutes aboard Patrol, the department's Boston Whaler, getting minute-by-minute updates on the emergency relayed through the Dukes County Communications Center.
"We ran full tilt, blue lights," Mr. Blair said. "We knew it was shallow, so we couldn't take our big boat."
Mr. McGuire estimated the young woman was in the water for about 15 minutes. Eventually, she got out of the fierce current, estimated by Mr. Blair to be running at about five knots.
In April 2007, a strong storm created a break in the narrow barrier beach that for decades has connected Katama to Chappaquiddick. The opening between Katama Bay and the Atlantic Ocean has created strong tidal currents and hazardous boating conditions in Edgartown Harbor.
While Mr. McGuire watched, Ms. Nusbaum was being pushed back toward the shore by waves and an onshore wind, which offered up another stroke of luck. She had drifted toward one of the shifting sandbars outside the breach, and she was eventually able to stand up and wait for help.
Mr. Blair said a good Samaritan in another Boston Whaler arrived just before he did. As the good Samaritan assisted Ms. Nusbaum, Mr. Blair began a pattern search in the vicinity of the empty dinghy and a small, crew-less sailboat drifting nearby.
"It was a bad feeling," Mr. Blair said. "I had two boats and only one person."
Only when Ms. Nusbaum was able to explain to her rescuers that no one else was missing did Mr. Blair begin to relax.
"Then my heart returned out of my throat," he said.
Once ashore, Ms. Nusbaum was examined by Edgartown ambulance personnel, who monitored her vital signs as her body temperature returned to normal. She refused any further treatment, according to the police report.
How it happened
Ms. Nusbaum got into the dangerous predicament when she was sailing in Katama Bay aboard a small sailboat and realized the current was carrying her out. Her sister-in-law, Anne Henley, was watching from shore and decided to row out in a dinghy to help. Both were eventually carried out the breach into the Atlantic Ocean, but Ms. Henley was able to swim back to shore relatively quickly. Ms Nusbaum, who had transferred from the sailboat to the dinghy, was carried farther and farther out, before she abandoned the dinghy and tried to swim for the beach.
Once the search was stopped, Mr. Blair recovered the two small boats and towed them to shore. He recovered a life jacket floating in the water, and another one in the sailboat.
Ms. Nusbaum was not wearing a life jacket when she was rescued. "Her chances of survival would have increased a hundred fold. She was lucky," Mr. Blair said.
Mr. Blair said advances in technology have made life jackets comfortable and easy to use. "After you wear them for a couple of days, you don't even know you have them on," Mr. Blair said, though he and his crew usually wear older style models as visible encouragement to boaters. "We wear the big uncomfortable orange vests when we're in our boats because we're proving a point."
Federal law requires that all children under the age of 12 and anyone operating personal watercraft, often called jet-skis, wear life jackets. Massachusetts state law requires kayakers and canoeists to wear life jackets from September 15 through May 15. Colder water in the fall, winter, and spring increases the risk of death from hypothermia. Mr. Blair and other Island harbormasters strongly encourage boaters to use life jackets whenever on the water, especially when they are alone.
Mr. Blair and Mr. McGuire offered high praise for the quick action and coordination of those who responded to the emergency. "I don't think a drill could have worked as well as that," said Mr. McGuire.
The Trustees of Reservations, Edgartown's harbormaster, fire and rescue, police, and ambulance all responded to the call for help. The Dukes County Communications Center relayed updates to the various agencies, making the response more effective, according to Mr. Blair.
One problem that came to light was some difficulty in radio communication, with different agencies all assigned to different radio frequencies, according to Mr. Blair. At various times during the emergency, Mr. Blair used several emergency radio frequencies on VHF radios as well as his mobile phone to communicate with other rescue personnel.
Mr. Blair said Edgartown ambulance coordinator Alex Schaefer has taken an active role in training and coordinating various responders for just such a water rescue, and the training paid off.
"It was the best coordination we've had," Mr. Blair said. "This is what we're working toward. That wouldn't have happened two years ago."