PORTLAND, Maine — A paraplegic skipper is being credited with actions that helped save the lives of all but one friend on his pleasure fishing boat as it took on water in rough seas off the Maine coast.
The 24-foot boat, Job Site 2, swamped and rolled upside down Friday while anchored about five miles off Kennebunkport during a day of fishing for bluefin tuna.
The outcome could have been worse if skipper Nicholas Masi III of Biddeford hadn’t calmly told the three other men on board to don survival suits and issued a mayday with precise coordinates, Maine Marine Patrol Sgt. Rob Beal said.
Moments after Masi radioed a distress call, the boat rolled over in 4- to 5-foot seas and 63-degree water, with few other boats nearby.
“If he hadn’t kept his head and radioed a distress call, it’s hard to say how long all four individuals would have been in the water,” Beal said. “You can only speculate from there.”
Masi, 45, said he did what he had to to keep people alive but it’s not much consolation with the death of his good friend Douglas Isenberg of Biddeford, who died at the scene. The two had been close friends since second grade, Masi said.
“I hear they’re calling me a hero, but my best friend is gone,” he said.
Masi has used a wheelchair since he was paralyzed four years ago in an accident while working as a house builder.
On Friday, he and three friends from Biddeford took his Grady-White boat to a fishing spot where they anchored for a few hours on a beautiful fall day. Around 3 p.m., the wind and seas kicked up, and the boat started taking on water.
The boat’s bilge pump couldn’t work fast enough, so the men tried to pull up the anchor and crank up the outboard engine so water would escape from openings, Beal said. But the anchor line was tangled in the propeller and the engine wouldn’t start once the line was untangled.
That’s when Masi instructed the others to put on their survival suits before getting on the radio and transmitting a distress call with his situation and location. Masi didn’t have time to put on his survival suit before the boat went under, putting on only a life jacket.
Once the boat rolled over, Masi told his friends to stay together, stay close to the boat and use a cooler to help keep them afloat if needed, said Daricus Hunter, who was on board.
“I’m alive because of one of my best friends,” Hunter said.
The mayday was heard by people on board a power yacht about five miles away. The Lady Erica, built by Sabre Yachts, was on its maiden voyage after launching earlier Friday.
Sabre Yachts CEO Aaron Crawford and his wife were on board with the owners, a man and woman from Annapolis, Md., and a fifth person.
They altered course and headed toward the Job Site 2, finding the boat at the exact coordinates that Masi had given on the mayday, presumably because it was anchored, Crawford said.
When the Lady Erica arrived, two of the men were in the water with Masi, and a fourth was on the hull.
The people on the Lady Erica threw out a line with a buoy to Masi and one of the other men and pulled them on board. When they threw the line back out to Isenberg, Crawford could see he wasn’t responsive.
“I yelled to him, but when he didn’t respond I dove in,” Crawford said. When he brought Isenberg back to the boat, attempts to resuscitate him were unsuccessful.
Masi said the last thing the 47-year-old Isenberg did was try to push him in the water toward the Lady Erica and safety.
“I heard him saying, ‘I can’t, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t,'” Masi said. “I screamed at him and I said, ‘Douglas, we’re OK. Help is here. Pull yourself together. You’re OK.'”
A lobster boat named Miss Konduct plucked the fourth man from the hull as the Coast Guard arrived on the scene. Masi’s boat was towed back to shore and is now at his home.
The Maine medical examiner’s office has not determined what caused Isenberg’s death, but Masi and Hunter said he may have had a heart attack. His greatest fear had been that something would happen at sea to put Masi in harm’s way, Hunter said.
Isenberg’s son, 17-year-old Joseph Isenberg, died three weeks ago of a head injury suffered in a skateboard accident. Joseph Isenberg lived with his mother in Ayer, Mass.