GOULDSBORO, Maine — It was beautifully sunny on Wednesday when Jennifer and Michael Popper of Plainfield, New Jersey, and kayak guide Ed Brackett left on their ill-fated jaunt across the mouth of Gouldsboro Bay.
They set out from the local village of Corea around noon. About eight hours later, Jennifer Popper, 48, was the only one of the three to make it back to shore alive.
According to state officials, Jennifer Popper survived for about five hours in the 52-degree water after her kayak capsized in foul weather that blew in suddenly from offshore in mid-afternoon.
Jeff Nichols, spokesman for the Maine Department of Marine Resources, said Friday that no one with the department’s Marine Patrol division can recall anyone ever surviving for that long in Maine’s chilly coastal waters.
The Poppers and Brackett ran into trouble when the storm rolled in with 30 mph winds that capsized their 16-foot watercrafts, leaving Jennifer Popper clinging to her boat.
“It was calm and then all of a sudden a squall blew in. It started to blow and it started to rain,” said Chris Popper, a cousin of 54-year-old Michael Popper and a local radio deejay with Townsquare Media.
“It was a gorgeous day,” Cheryl Brackett, Ed Brackett’s wife, said about the conditions on Wednesday before the skies quickly turned dark. Not long after, “it was a beautiful day again.”
Jennifer Popper’s boat was the first to flip in the unrelenting waves, estimated to be 5 feet at their peak in the storm.
“[Ed] went over to do a rescue with her,” Cheryl Brackett said Friday, recounting what she had learned of the incident.
Ed Brackett couldn’t get Jennifer Popper back in her kayak, she added, and soon, all three of them had capsized.
Department of Marine Resources officials said all three people were wearing life jackets, T-shirts and shorts and are believed to have started suffering from hypothermia within a few minutes.
“They tried to get back in and couldn’t get the skirts connected,” Chris Popper said. “The water was way too high” and kept knocking them over.
Brackett, 63, became a registered kayak guide in 2002 and, that same year, founded Seascape Kayak with his wife. The Poppers were experienced kayakers who had made four or five prior trips with Brackett in recent years, during their annual summertime trips to Maine. Brackett had made the Poppers practice how to get back into their crafts and re-connect the skirt just before departing on Wednesday, Chris Popper said.
At one point, “Mike swam to retrieve the kayak [with the emergency phone], and that was the last [Jennifer] saw of him,” Chris Popper said. “Ed hung on for a while.”
Jennifer Popper was able to keep herself halfway out of the cold water by tying her wrist to a rope inside the kayak and clinging to the overturned hull.
The Coast Guard and Marine Patrol were contacted about 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, after Cheryl Brackett became concerned that the paddlers had not returned. She went to the beach where they had put their boats in the water and, after seeing no sign of them, began making calls to ask for help.
Word spread quickly in the small community, and within minutes, several local fishermen were on their boats heading out of the harbor to search for the kayakers.
Lobstermen Bruce Crowley and Lenny Young found Jennifer Popper about 8 p.m., still clinging to her kayak more than two miles out to sea.
“She was conscious, but just barely,” Crowley said Thursday. “She was just helpless.”
Crowley then found Ed Brackett at about 8:40 p.m., and lobsterman John Coffin found Michael Popper just before 10 p.m. Each were within a few hundred yards of where Jennifer Popper was pulled from the water. Both men were unresponsive and declared deceased after being brought to shore.
Local lobsterman Mike Hunt, who also helped in the search, said he believes the outgoing tide swept the kayakers and their overturned vessels out of the bay and into the open ocean.
On Friday afternoon, Chris Popper picked up Jennifer Popper, who declined to be interviewed, when she was released from Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. He said she plans to return to New Jersey on Saturday.
“She’s sore, beaten and bruised but alive,” Chris Popper said. “Her core temperature [when she was rescued] was somewhere around 80 degrees.”
On his Facebook page, Chris Popper posted a link to a statement that expressed condolences to Brackett’s family and his thanks to those who participated in Wednesday’s search.
“Your prompt search and willingness to drop everything saved my cousin’s wife,” Chris Popper wrote. “She was in 52 degree water for 5 hours, and by her own accounts, wasn’t going to be able to hang on much longer.”
The Maine Association of Sea Kayak Guides and Instructors posted Thursday on its Facebook page that the fatalities are “stark reminders” of the sea’s unpredictability.
“We cannot know exactly what happened, but if unexpected wind squalls were involved, as has been conjectured in the news, even seasoned paddlers who are wearing their lifejackets, as these folks apparently were, can be put in an extremely difficult situation,” Christopher Strout, Maine Association of Sea Kayak Guides and Instructors president, wrote in the statement.
Natalie Springuel, former Maine Association of Sea Kayak Guides and Instructors president, added she was “stunned” when she heard about the fatalities.
“I had the joy of guiding with Ed a few years ago on a special event for a local land trust, and he was responsible, professional and fun,” Springuel said. “His passing will be a great loss to the guiding community in the area.”
Ocean kayakers should always dress appropriately for water temperatures instead of air temperatures, wear a life jacket, bring safety equipment including a VHF radio, check the forecast before going, and leave a detailed float plan, the Maine Association of Sea Kayak Guides statement indicated.
According to the National Weather Service, the weather forecast for coastal Hancock County, issued at 12:14 p.m. Wednesday, called for possible scattered showers and thunderstorms.
“The probability of precipitation was 50 percent,” Vic Nouhan, the service’s lead forecaster in its Caribou office, said Friday.
He said the kayakers should not have been out on the ocean. Local fishermen and others suggest sea kayakers should carry emergency beacons for when they run into foul weather.
Cheryl Brackett said she assumed her husband and the Poppers had taken cover during the squall and would make it back to shore unharmed. Ed Brackett, who also worked as Gouldsboro’s part-time code enforcement officer, had 26 years worth of kayaking experience, including white-water kayaking on rivers, she said, and had a proven record of being capable and safety-conscious.
Cheryl Brackett said Ed Brackett always had a VHF radio and flares with him whenever he went out paddling. Though not a registered guide, Cheryl Brackett said she also is an experienced kayaker and has paddled enough with her husband to know how he would react to the sudden change in weather.
“He would have told them, ‘Point into the wind, paddle, and I will be right behind you,’” she said.
Ed Brackett, a retired Cianbro engineer, had a “joy of the ocean,” she said, and of helping others learn how to go kayaking in a safe and prudent manner.
“He was a teacher first and foremost,” Cheryl Brackett said. “He was very passionate about teaching people about the ocean and how to be on the ocean safely.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately described the length of the kayaks Brackett and the Poppers were paddling during the incident. They all were using 16-foot boats.