Responding To Stricken Paddler, Crews Vexed By Shoaling

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Police, Fire And Harbormaster News , Dredging


An Eastham man died while paddleboarding off Nauset Light Beach Sunday afternoon, having apparently suffered a medical emergency while in the water. Because of shoaling at Nauset Inlet, the closest rescue boats had to come from Chatham, about 12 miles to the south.

And had the tide been lower, some of those rescuers might also have been prevented from responding because of shoaling in Chatham Harbor.

Responders were called to Nauset Light Beach at around 12:20 p.m. Sunday for a report of a man in the water in distress. The man was later identified as 55-year-old David Harmon, an avid outdoorsman and an experienced paddler. According to a statement from the Cape and Islands District Attorney’s Office, it appears Harmon suffered a medical problem, and the state medical examiner’s office will conduct an autopsy to determine the cause of death. While the matter remains under investigation, no foul play is suspected, the statement reads.

Eastham Fire Chief Kent Farrenkopf said that while he was driving to the scene, he called Chatham Harbormaster Stuart Smith to ask for a response.

“Stu bails us out all the time,” said Farrenkopf, the former deputy fire chief in Harwich. His own crew and Orleans rescuers were sent to Town Cove to launch rescue boats, and he also called the Coast Guard and asked them to respond from Station Chatham. “I learned the last couple years to place a call to Chatham right away, because more than likely, they’re the only ones who can get out there,” Farrenkopf said.

Already in the air on another mission, a Coast Guard HC-144 Ocean Sentry aircraft was diverted to the scene and dropped a life raft to the man, who was not responsive. A Coast Guard helicopter was also sent to the scene.

Rescuers from Eastham and Orleans responded from Town Cove to Nauset Inlet, but found the water too shallow to pass over the bar to the Atlantic. The tide was an hour or two before low and ebbing.

Chatham Assistant Harbormaster Matt Hussey was the first on the scene, followed shortly thereafter by the crew of a 42-foot nearshore lifeboat from Coast Guard Station Chatham. Hussey recovered Harmon’s body and brought it to shore at Ryder’s Cove in Chatham.

Shoaling just inside the North Inlet has made it impossible for the 42-foot Coast Guard boats to exit or enter Chatham Harbor at low water, and they had to return to Stage Harbor rather than Chatham Harbor after Sunday’s response because the tide had dropped. Smith said the Coast Guard wouldn’t have been able to respond from Aunt Lydia’s Cove Sunday if the call had come in at low tide one or two hours later.

“The take-home is the need for dredging, both in Nauset Inlet and here [in Chatham],” he said.

Senior Chief Carlos Hessler, commanding officer of Coast Guard Station Chatham, said the shoaling has caused the station to change its response protocol. A rescue boat from Stage Harbor will now respond to all emergencies, unless conditions allow a response from Chatham Harbor. That is what happened Sunday, he said.

“Yesterday’s response was not hampered due to lack of water, but we were fortunate,” he said Monday.

The need for dredging of the Chatham Harbor entrance channel and Nauset Inlet is clearly a regional public safety issue, Smith said.

“The responders need to be able to get there,” he said. Had the Coast Guard been unable to respond from Chatham Harbor, “then they’re coming from Stage Harbor, and that’s a long way,” he said. It’s a long boat ride from Chatham Harbor to the outer beach in Eastham and Wellfleet, and if the Coast Guard is delayed, that puts a lot of responsibility on his department, Smith said.

Dredging in Nauset Inlet is the subject of ongoing studies and negotiations between Orleans and Eastham town officials. Dredging inside the North Inlet to Chatham Harbor is on hold because of a legal challenge, logistical problems and permitting requirements.

The outer beach isn’t the only challenging area for responders. The area known as the Southway, between South Beach Island and North Monomoy Island in Chatham, often cannot be reached by rescue boat from Stage Harbor because of shoaling in the Morris Island Cut. Rescuers from Chatham Harbor would have to navigate the shoals near the North Inlet before traveling south to access the area through the so-called Fools’ Cut near Lighthouse Beach. The Southway is popular with recreational boaters and shellfishermen.

“It’s going to be an interesting summer,” Smith said.

From his perspective in Eastham, Farrenkopf said officials in that town are looking into options for rescue vehicles that can be launched from the beach, given the problems created by shoaling in area harbors. But the difficulty isn’t just on the east-facing beach, he said. When rescuers are needed on Eastham’s Cape Cod Bay shoreline, they may have to come from Sesuit Harbor in Dennis if low tide precludes a boat launch from Rock Harbor, Farrenhopf said.

“Orleans and [Eastham] have the same problem,” he said. “Low tide, you just can’t launch a boat on either side.”

Facebook and social media were filled with tributes to Mr. Harmon, who previously lived in Orleans and Chatham. A musician, artist and member of the Outer Cape's surfing community, he was remembered as a talented and kind friend to many. “He was quite talented, he excelled as an artist and musician, surfer, snowboarder...with much humility, that is such a great virtue to have. I feel blessed to have know him,” wrote Wendi Elizabeth Chesson.

A beach party and paddle out will be held Sunday, May 19 at noon at Nauset Beach to celebrate David Harmon's life.