A Lesson In Boating Safety
CHATHAM — Four young men are lucky to be alive after their boat capsized in the North Cut Friday afternoon. Officials say the case is proof of the town’s rescue capabilities – and the need for common-sense boating safety.
The four men were fishing in a 15-foot Boston Whaler when their boat was overturned by a wave. All four went in the water, Fire Chief David DePasquale said.
“This guy pulled his phone up and it actually worked,” he said. The man called 911. “They were screaming into the phone that they needed help, then the phone went dead,” the chief said. The caller couldn’t tell officials his exact location, but from the description, it seemed that they were located off the South Inlet, opposite Outermost Harbor. DePasquale responded there but saw nothing.
Using GPS information from the brief phone call at 2:50 p.m., Chatham Fire Capt. R.J. Silvester and paramedic Rachel McGrath plotted the call to the area of the North Inlet, about three miles away. They notified the harbormaster’s office, the police and the Coast Guard. Silvester, who leads the department’s Swift Water Rescue Team and teaches those skills around the Cape, launched their 17-foot rescue boat. A rescue boat from Orleans also got underway.
Deputy Harbormaster Jason Holm, a Coast Guard-qualified surfman, took the town’s 24-foot patrol boat to the scene and helped as the fire department brought the four men aboard. All four declined medical treatment, though one had swallowed some seawater. Their names were not immediately available, but they were all described as seasonal residents in their early 20s. It was also not clear whether they were wearing life jackets.
Harbormaster Stuart Smith said the four were extremely lucky that the cell phone worked long enough for them to call for help.
“They were very fortunate, because it was pretty foggy,” he said. The four wisely stayed with their overturned boat, which was much easier for rescuers to spot “than four heads in the water,” Smith said. Owing to the marginal weather, there were no other boats in the area and the tide was going out, carrying the capsized boat out to sea.
“When the tow boat got there three hours later, it was a mile offshore,” the harbormaster said. Had they been unable to call for help, “I’m not sure when we would’ve seen them next. It could’ve been quite some time.”
DePasquale said it took just 20 minutes for rescuers to reach the four men after their 911 call. He praised his crew and the harbormaster’s staff for an excellent response.
“They saved those four kids. There’s no question about it,” the chief said. On Monday, the father of one of the rescued men called the department to offer his thanks, and said they believed the rescue saved their lives.
“Everybody did a good job,” DePasquale said.
Though they responded quickly, the Coast Guard was unable to assist, he said.
“They just don’t have the same capabilities anymore,” DePasquale said. The shallow water in both harbor inlets – but particularly the North Cut – prohibits Coast Guard Nearshore Lifeboats from operating there. The Coast Guard responded with its 24-foot inshore rescue boat, but that vessel cannot operate in the surf, Smith said.
“They couldn’t get to the scene,” he said. “[It] puts us in the position of operating during surf conditions.”
The incident offers some useful lessons for boaters, the harbormaster said.
“First, wear your life jackets,” he said. Though the town’s response was very fast, the four men were still in the still-cold ocean water for 20 minutes. If any had been knocked unconscious when the boat capsized, they might not have been able to stay afloat. “File a float plan. That would’ve helped,” Smith added. By letting someone ashore know their whereabouts and expected return time, boaters can facilitate a search and rescue if they fail to turn up. It’s also important to know the limitations of one’s boat: the 15-foot open craft was simply too small for four large men to go fishing on anything but perfectly calm water and ideal visibility.
“Don’t go out in those conditions,” the harbormaster said. Most summertime boaters are familiar with southwest winds, but on Friday the winds were from the northeast. When combined with outgoing tide rushing through the shallow North Inlet, the winds conspired to create two- to four-foot surf on the bar.
“It’s dangerous any day,” DePasquale added. “Then throw the fog in there.”
There’s another factor to consider, the chief noted. White sharks are known to be in the area on a regular basis, so even 20 minutes in the water might be too long. “That was certainly on our mind during the rescue,” he said.
“Chatham’s waters are ever-changing. You have to be careful out there,” DePasquale said. “And you’re going to need a bigger boat.”