GOULDSBORO, Maine — A New Jersey woman whose kayak capsized Wednesday afternoon was rescued from the chilly ocean by a lobsterman, but her two paddling companions — a kayaking guide and her husband — died after they encountered a brief squall off the local village of Corea, according to officials.
The woman who survived the incident was identified by state officials as Jennifer Popper, 48, of Plainfield, New Jersey. The two men who perished were identified as local kayak guide Ed Brackett, 63, who also worked part-time as Gouldsboro’s code enforcement officer, and Michael Popper, 54, according to Maine Department of Marine Resources.
“She was conscious, but just barely,” said Corea lobsterman Bruce Crowley, who found Jennifer Popper a few miles offshore and pulled her from the water Wednesday evening. “She was just helpless.”
Crowley, who has worked on the sea since age 10 and is captain of the Cindy Lee, added that when he found Jennifer Popper, she was still clutching the kayak and had a rope from inside it wrapped around her hand — an act that may have helped keep her alive.
Crowley went searching for the missing kayakers with Lenny Young of Corea after the two stopped at the beach in Corea around 6:30 p.m. Wednesday when Crowley saw Cheryl Brackett, Ed Brackett’s wife, pacing back and forth along the shoreline. She informed them that the three were overdue, he said, and he told her to call the Coast Guard and went to his boat.
According to the Maine Department of Marine Resources, Jennifer Popper has told Marine Patrol officers that the passing squall capsized their boats. The waves, reportedly 3- to 5-feet high, caused all three kayaks to roll over in the approximately 52-degree water, the Department of Marine Resources said in a prepared statement.
Immersion in the cold ocean likely caused hypothermia in the kayakers, fishermen and officials said. According to several scientific and water safety websites, people in water less than 60 degrees often become exhausted or unconscious from hypothermia after about an hour.
Crowley, Young, Mike Hunt, John Coffin and others were among the local fishermen who assisted in the search.
Crowley and Young rescued Jennifer Popper from the water around 8 p.m. and brought her to shore.
She was being treated Thursday at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, officials said.
The two other paddlers later were found about halfway between Cranberry Point and Petit Manan Island and within a few hundred yards of where Jennifer Popper was rescued — Brackett at around 8:30 p.m. and Michael Popper at 9:50 p.m. Each man was unresponsive when pulled from the water and declared dead by emergency response personnel after being taken to shore in Prospect Harbor.
The Department of Marine Resources said all three people were wearing life jackets, T-shirts and shorts. The Poppers were paid clients of Brackett, who was leading the tour, the agency added.
Brackett’s family declined multiple requests Thursday from the Bangor Daily News for interviews. A woman who identified herself as the daughter of Cheryl Brackett when she met a reporter on the front lawn of the family’s home and later answered a phone call placed to the residence said the family did not want to be interviewed.
An employee at the Winter Harbor location said Thursday that the business was open for bicycle rentals but the kayak guiding part had been suspended until further notice.
Bryan Kaenrath, Gouldsboro’s town manager, said Thursday that Ed Brackett had served as the town’s part-time code enforcement officer since April 2015 and has held the same position with the nearby towns of Sorrento and Sullivan.
He said Brackett previously had worked for the construction company Cianbro and had lived in central Maine before moving to Gouldsboro. Kaenrath said he was not sure how long the Bracketts have lived in Gouldsboro.
He recalled Brackett as a conscientious town employee who often stayed late in his office, directly next to Kaenrath’s at the town’s municipal building in the village of Prospect Harbor.
“He was a very bright guy, very thorough,” the town manager said. “He was a real asset [to Gouldsboro], and we are really sad to see him gone.”
Kaenrath added that Brackett was an experienced kayaker who was aware of the risks of paddling along the exposed coast.
“He knew what he was doing out there,” he said. “It must have been something severe [weatherwise] to have caused this.”
According to fishermen involved in Wednesday’s response, the water conditions just offshore from Corea often are challenging.
Hunt said the kayakers planned to paddle across Gouldsboro Bay to the east and then to return but got caught in the storm and the outgoing tide, which is why they were found so far from shore.
“When that tide goes out between those islands — it’s no place to be,” Hunt said.
The storm was a “30-knot southerner.”
“It went from no wind to 30 mph, just like that,” Hunt added, snapping his fingers.
Warren Polk, manager of the Corea Lobster Co-Op, said everyone who heard that people were missing went to their boats.
“If there is any trouble or when anybody needs help, these guys go full force,” Polk said Thursday morning. “It’s just the kind of people they are. They can look at the water and tides and know [where to look].”
Ben Walter, who has worked on the water for decades, said kayaks are not safe to use on the open seas.
“They shouldn’t allow them in the ocean,” Walter said of the small self-propelled watercraft. “It’s a whole different world with the tides.”
Hunt said over the years he has helped pull nearly half a dozen people safely from the water and didn’t expect anything different when he went out Wednesday.
“It’s disheartening,” he said, standing in his boat’s wheelhouse. “It’s not the first time kayakers have gotten in trouble around here.”
Fisherman Ed Weaver was working on his boat on the harbor shore Wednesday when the storm blew in. He said that kayakers should be required to wear emergency position indicating radio beacons, just as fishermen are required to have on their vessels.
If an emergency position indicating radio beacon is activated, he said, its signal can be pinpointed very quickly.
“We’d be there in about five minutes,” Weaver said. “[Weather conditions] change fast on the water.”
According to Kenneth Stuart, command duty officer at Sector North New England, ocean conditions were calm during the search Wednesday evening after the brief storm had blown through the area.
“This is a very tragic outcome,” Stuart said in the prepared statement. “We deeply appreciate the efforts of those local boaters who assisted, and we’ll be working to determine what happened and how to prevent such accidents from occurring in the future.”
In recent years, there have been a handful of similar incidents along the Maine coast in which people have gone out for a paddle on the ocean but have capsized and died.
A couple from Pennsylvania died last summer in the waters between Jonesport and Roque Island after they went out for a paddle in a canoe. Five years ago, two men died weeks apart in the waters off MDI — one in mid-June 2011 and the other about a month later — after each went for recreational paddles and capsized.