COBSCOOK BAY, Maine — Despite sea swells of between 1 and 3 feet and the strain of the East Coast’s most treacherous tides and currents, an unprecedented search team worked the waters of Cobscook Bay on Wednesday.
With a state-of-the-art portable sonar system — most often used to clear waterways after hurricanes and to create nautical charts — a team of state, federal and local scientists and marine specialists scoured the sea floor for the Bottom Basher, a 34-foot sea urchin dragger that inexplicably sank two weeks ago in 47-degree water, with three fishermen on board. It was one of two local fishing vessels lost in the bay this year.
The body of Darryl Cline, 41, of Lubec was found Oct. 21, the day after the boat went down. The boat’s owner, Joseph Jones, 29, of Trescott, and Norman Johnson, 57, of Cutler remain missing.
In March, the fishing vessel All American went down in Cobscook Bay, killing the captain, Loren Lank, 53, of Lubec, and deckhand Logan Preston, 19, of Roque Bluffs. Preston’s body also has not been found.
“I’m still looking for them,” Marine Patrol Specialist Russell Wright said Wednesday as he plowed his boat, the Sentinel, through the rough waters. “I look for them every day.”
Wright grew up in the Lubec area, patrols the Cobscook Bay area, and knew all five fishermen who were lost.
What took those boats to the bottom is a mystery that the team of experts hope to solve. They are looking for ledges, rocks or anything that might have caught the boats’ draggers and pulled the boats down.
The local communities also are looking for a reason for the sinkings, but they also are seeking closure.
“My main concern is finding the people,” Wright admitted.
As he piloted his boat through the rough water, Wright pointed to a neck of white water near Reversing Falls. “That’s the last place the Bottom Basher was seen,” he said.
After the U.S. Coast Guard suspended the search for Bottom Basher’s crew Oct. 22, the local men reached out for help and asked the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to come to Cobscook Bay. The first call for help was made last Thursday, and by Monday, arrangements for NOAA’s arrival were under way.
“The combined cooperation here between all the agencies has been amazing,” Capt. Robert Peacock said Wednesday. Peacock provided his boat, the Medric II, being used by the NOAA experts. He said the effort included assistance from U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe’s office, as well as local agencies and businesses, which have provided gear for the four vessels that will be involved in the project — from generators and the boats themselves to a heated trailer and portable toilets. Peacock said valuable assistance was provided by the Down East Correctional Facility welding instructor, Craig Smith, and some welding program inmates, who did most of the prep work for the special equipment.
“They told us they could have the sonar equipment here but their boat was in use elsewhere,” Peacock said. “I told them not to worry about boats — we have plenty of boats. We’ve had too many tragedies up here. We don’t want any more.” Peacock said four or five boats have sunk in Cobscook Bay without explanation over the past decade.
For two days, NOAA’s team, using the high-tech imaging sonar, has searched the area near Falls Island and Leighton Point where debris from the Bottom Basher was found two weeks ago. The currents in that area are some of the strongest found anywhere.
“When we arrived, we went up to Reversing Falls and we got an education fast,” Lt. Commander Matthew Wingate of the NOAA team said. “On the way up to Maine we saw the full moon and we knew it would affect the tides. They were at 25 feet yesterday.”
By midday Wednesday, three sites were determined to be “interesting,” said Wingate.
“We were looking for anything with square edges, anything that looked man-made,” Lt. Matthew Joskoski said, as he carefully watched a computer screen. The grainy images rolled by, showing the bottom of the bay. Rocks were clearly visible here and there.
“We had a couple of contacts today that we wanted to take a look at,” he said.
Suddenly an elongated shape with a square end became visible on the sonar readout. “There,” he said, pointing.
Joskoski said the spot could turn out to be debris unrelated to either of the sinkings, but “we haven’t entirely ruled them out.”
Two pieces of debris were found over the past two days by Peacock: one tiny piece of fiberglass and a larger sheet of plywood with teal paint. “I think that big sheet is from the All American,” Peacock said.
Another urchin dragger working in the bay Wednesday, the Triple Nickel, also reported finding debris.
If the team decides any of the underwater locations need a closer inspection, a dive team from the Maine State Police and DMR could be assembled.
“We have the location marked,” Wingate said, and added, “No diving would be taking place in the next couple of days.”
The NOAA team will remain onsite searching until tonight, weather permitting, Wingate said.
The team includes representatives from the U.S. Coast Guard, NOAA, the Maine Departments of Marine Resources and Conservation, the Maine State Police, the Lubec Fire Department and the Washington County Sheriff’s Department, as well as several local companies and fishing boats. They spent Monday preparing and be-gan patrolling Tuesday.
“It is unusual for such a tragic situation, so many sinkings in such a small area,” Wingate said. “The best result would be for us to find the ships.”
“It’s tragic, what brought them here, but all this effort is good for the families,” Wright said. “It shows them someone still cares.”
Taking into consideration the treacherous tides and currents in the area and the unexplained sinkings, Talbot was asked why the boats keep coming back into the bay.
“This is what people here know. This is their heritage, their way of life,” he said. “What’s the alternative? They would have to move away.”
BANGOR DAILY NEWS PHOTO BY SHARON KILEY MACK