BELFAST, Maine — Coast Guard officials are asking for the public’s help in determining whether a distress call that prompted a large search and rescue mission in Penobscot Bay on Saturday was a legitimate emergency or a costly hoax.
The Coast Guard has released a brief audio recording of the “mayday” call in hopes that someone will recognize the speaker or the boat, identified only as the vessel Steven Bowden.
“Until we can confirm something as a hoax, we treat it as an actual case,” Lt. j.g. Laura van der Pol with the Coast Guard Sector Northern New England said Sunday morning. “We believe it to be a possible hoax.”
Rescue crews searched the waters around Vinalhaven and Deer Isle for about six hours Saturday after a man radioed just before noon that his fishing vessel was sinking quickly about five miles north of North Haven.
The man, who identified himself as Elwood Patten, claimed he was being forced into the cold waters of Penobscot Bay without a survival suit.
A massive search ensued, involving two Coast Guard rescue helicopters and a Falcon jet — all dispatched from Cape Cod, Mass. — a Coast Guard boat out of Rockland, a Maine Marine Patrol boat and a Knox County Sheriff’s Department aircraft. Two civilian boats also assisted in the search.
No evidence of a sunken boat or the alleged fisherman in distress was found.
“We had good search weather, and we were out in force,” Coast Guard Lt. Bryan Hollis said Saturday night. “We did not locate a person, a vessel or debris.”
The Coast Guard estimates its expenses from the rescue operation at $176,000.
A search of state and federal databases turned up no information on the Steven Bowden — or spelling variations on that name — or Elwood Patten. Information about the vessel and the alleged caller also was circulated among the hundreds of fishermen attending the Maine Fishermen’s Forum in nearby Rockport on Saturday with no results.
Making a hoax distress call to the Coast Guard is a felony offense, punishable by up to six years in prison and a fine of $250,000. But van der Pol said there is also the possibility that a boat and its owner have been lost.
“Neither of those situations is acceptable to the Coast Guard,” she said.
Officials are asking that anyone with possible information about the caller or a vessel named Steven Bowden to contact the Coast Guard in Portland at 207-741-5465.