KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine — The snow is a bit deeper and the temperatures a bit colder, but in other ways Maine winters are much like winters on Cape Cod.
Tourists are fewer and farther between. Locals reclaim the snowy streets and their favorite bar stools. Friendly conversation is easier and the nonstop hubbub of the summer is over.
In the Kennebunkport village of Cape Porpoise, the low talk at the start of a new year includes questions and speculation about what happened to two out-of-staters — including one from Cape Cod — who are believed dead after mysteriously disappearing last month from the quaint coastal community.
Prescott Wright, 23, of Barnstable and Zachary Wells, 21, of Burlington, Vt., were “boat school” students who attended The Landing School in nearby Arundel, Maine. They were known in passing by many locals and better by some others.
The men were last seen in the early morning of Dec. 20 during a small pre-holiday gathering at a home on Mills Road, a stone’s throw from the center of Cape Porpoise. Life jackets, jeans, a jacket, a sweatshirt and footwear were found Dec. 24 on nearby Savin Bush Island, a ledge of rocks that barely stays above water at high tide just northwest of its larger, more prominent neighbor, Goat Island. Police say at least one of the items found on the island has been connected to one of the men. No other sign or clue related to their disappearance has been uncovered despite an extensive search on land and at sea.
“I couldn’t say for sure,” lobsterman John Daggett said Thursday during a chilly interview on the Cape Porpoise pier about what he thought happened to the two young sailors.
Daggett, who was among many who searched for the missing men in the surrounding waters, said nobody could fault the Maine Marine Patrol for lack of trying.
“They don’t give up,” he said as the agency’s plane buzzed overhead with pilot Steve Ingram scanning the water below for any sign of Wright or Wells.
Wright had a sailboat on somebody else’s mooring in the harbor until about two or three weeks before he and Wells disappeared, said Kennebunkport Harbormaster Lee McCurdy.
He told Wright he couldn’t keep it there for long, McCurdy said, adding that he helped Wright take down the boat’s mast before later pulling the boat from the water.
Standing on the pier with Goat Island about a half-mile in the distance, McCurdy and Daggett said the weather was bad the night Wright and Wells disappeared and no time to be out on the water.
“We’ve had several storms,” Daggett said. “Every one has been pretty good.”
Goat Island lighthouse keeper Scott Dombrowski said he was awoken by the sound of a Coast Guard helicopter searching the area early the Saturday after Wells and Wright disappeared.
“As soon as we found out what had occurred, we headed out and started to search for Prescott and Zach,” he said.
Fishermen, police and other locals spent the next several days combing the surrounding islands looking for them, Dombrowski said, adding that it was a “monumental effort.”
“What I would speculate is that they were in kayaks as opposed to a boat,” he said.
Although no boats or kayaks were reported missing, masons working on Goat Island reported seeing what appeared to be a kayak across the mouth of the harbor on Folly Island the morning of Dec. 20, Dombrowski said.
Police say no kayaks or other vessels have been recovered in connection with the search.
It’s possible Wright and Wells got into trouble on the water but made it to Savin Bush Island, Dombrowski said.
Once they made it there they might have shed their clothes to eliminate weight or because of the effects of hypothermia, Dombrowski said, adding that the water temperature at the time was 37 degrees Fahrenheit.
It would have been a roughly 200-foot swim from the rocks to Goat Island where the lighthouse has heat, food and water, Dombrowski said.
“It certainly would have been our wish that they made it there,” he said.
Instead they may have been overcome during the attempted swim and swept out to sea, Dombrowski said.
“When the water flushes out of there, it goes out with a vigor,” he said of the harbor.
High tide on the morning of Dec. 20 was 4:41 a.m. and low tide was 10:55 a.m., according to www.maineboats.com. Sunrise was shortly after 7 a.m.
By Dec. 22 the Coast Guard had provided local police with a computer-generated map of a search area for Wright and Wells, which ran from Cape Porpoise to Cape Neddick near York, said Kennebunkport Police Chief Craig Sanford.
“That’s over 30 miles along the shore,” he said about the search area.
Side-scan sonar, which creates images of the sea floor, was used in the harbor and around Goat Island. The sonar revealed some small boats underwater but divers determined the boats had been there long before Dec. 20, Sanford said.
There were only about five people at the gathering where Wright and Wells were last seen, he said, adding that everyone involved has been extremely cooperative.
Police were concerned immediately after the men were reported missing, Sanford said.
Their families were expecting them for the holidays, they left cellphones behind, and there was no indication a crime had been committed, he said.
“When we started to look at this, it was very strange,” he said.
Witnesses told police they thought the men were intoxicated, but there was nothing unusual about young men having a few drinks, Sanford said.
Police even served a search warrant on Wells’ car just in case but found nothing that could help, he said.
If they did take kayaks or some other boat on the water, there is no indication where they would have acquired the vessel or vessels, Sanford said.
Two kayaks at the house where they were staying were accounted for, and no other boats have been reported missing, he said.
“There are summer residents who have all kinds of boats,” he said, adding that Wright and Wells could have used one of these.
Sanford said he has been updating the missing men’s families as needed.
“I can only imagine their grief, being a parent,” said Sanford, who is the father of three sons between 19 and 23 years old.
Locals who knew Wright described him as friendly, outgoing and passionate about the water.
Wright had already graduated from the marine systems program at the The Landing School and was back to study yacht design after a year away.
“He was a big personality who just everybody liked,”said school president Robert DeColfmacker.
DeColfmacker said he planned to hold an “all hands” meeting to discuss the deaths of Wright and Wells with the school’s 70 students on Thursday, the first day back to school after the holidays.
Despite not being native to the area, Wright made an impression on many of the people who spoke to the Times for this story.
“Prescott was a hoot,” said Bree Frederick, a bartender at the Ramp, a small restaurant on the Cape Porpoise pier filled with an impressive array of signed sports and political memorabilia. “He always was the life of the party.”
Everything seemed fine when Wright was last in the restaurant with his father the Saturday before he disappeared, Frederick said.
The Ramp’s owner and chef Peter Morency, who previously worked at several restaurants on Cape Cod, said Wright loved boat building and had a lot of friends.
“For him, it was all about the water,” Morency said.
Hundreds attended a memorial service for Wright on Saturday afternoon at the Unitarian Church of Barnstable. A service for Wells was scheduled for the same day and time in Vermont.
Distributed by MCT Information Services