By Lynne Hendricks
NEWBURYPORT — Four days after treacherous currents and shifting tides at the mouth of the Merrimack River are presumed to have claimed the life of former Coast Guardsman Seth Coellner, two boaters narrowly escaped a similar fate Saturday after they were forced to abandon their sinking, 20-foot recreational boat in the vicinity of the south jetty.
The two fishermen, Jorge Menese and Lourval Navarro of Lowell, reported their boat quickly began taking on water after they dropped anchor west of the Salisbury jetties in the vicinity of Buoy 10, or "the toothpick" as it's known to locals. They had just set out for a night of fishing from the Cashman Park boat launch, according to officials familiar with the mishap, and it's likely that a lack of basic boating knowledge was to blame for what happened next.
"They made an inexperienced mistake," said Boat Tow US representative Michael Goodridge, who happened to be on duty Saturday night and towed the "swamped" boat back to Cashman Park following the incident. "They were running down current and they threw the anchor over the bow, which immediately grabbed the end of their own outboard motor, which made them turn to the current, which put a wave over the back of the boat."
Salisbury Harbormaster Ray Pike said the incident was caused by inexperience on the part of the two boaters, which was exacerbated when they panicked and added weight to the stern of the boat that was already taking on water.
"If you anchor off the stern and you fish off the stern, you're going to take on water, and you might sink," Pike said. "We had one of those last year. Somebody who knows any river would know not to do that."
Thankfully for Menese and Navarro, two nearby fishermen, John Mitchell and Michele Farmer of Derry, N.H., heard their blaring horn and screams for help and called the Coast Guard. The two were rescued from the water shortly after they went overboard.
According to a Coast Guard press release, the call came in at 8:42 p.m.
A 47-foot motor lifeboat and a 25-foot response boat were sent to the scene. The response boat crew arrived seven minutes after the initial radio call and rescued the two people, who were clinging to the hull of the pleasure craft.
The men were relayed to the Salisbury harbormaster, who took them to a marina in Salisbury.
Though the ending was a happy one for the two fishermen, the incident coming so soon on the heels of the deadly boating accident Wednesday night is a stark reminder of what can happen when boaters set out in bad weather or without proper knowledge of area tides and conditions at the mouth, Salisbury police Chief David L'Esperance said.
"That river is treacherous," L'Esperance said.
Foggy conditions Saturday night were similar to those encountered by Coellner and his four-person boating party as they tried to find their way to Newburyport harbor around what locals refer to as the "dog leg" of Salisbury's north jetty. Low visibility is thought to have contributed to the disorientation of the four boaters, three of whom swam to safety after their boat slammed headlong into the rocks.
Even as officials from Tow Boat US raised the fiberglass forward deck and pulpit of the 36-foot Chris Craft yesterday afternoon, the ship's hull had yet to be located, and there are still questions over what caused Coellner, a trained Coast Guard captain with boating experience, to run into the jetty.
Following the accident, Coellner is being credited with saving the lives of his three passengers by staying aboard the vessel and calling for help.
Coellner has still not been found, and the Coast Guard called off its search for the young husband and father on Friday.
A witness who was fishing on the opposite side of Plum Island's jetty reported he saw the boat accelerate toward the jetty as if intending to "jump" the series of jagged rocks. But Russell Hilliard, who is Coellner's uncle and the presumed owner of the boat, told police the group saw the jetties only as they got up close to them and were carried by a tidal surge into them.
It's hoped that clues can be found in the hull of the boat, which could be lying in a deep section of the river known as "the hole," according to Tow Boat US operator Michael Goodridge. Though state police said they had located the boat on the ocean floor Thursday morning, Goodridge thinks what they actually located was the deck and pulpit of the boat that he pulled from 50 feet of water yesterday.
Goodridge said the top deck section police located has been moving with the tides since the accident, after it was ripped from the hull due to wave and current activity. He plans to go out today and dive again along the outskirts of the jetty in search of that boat section.
"It's a big ocean," Goodridge said. "The hull wouldn't be moving. I'd say it has to be in a certain part of the river to have the wave action tear it apart like this."
Salisbury police will continue their investigation. They're in a holding pattern for now, said L'Esperance, who acknowledged yesterday the toll these unanswered questions have on the family and friends of Coellner.
"We've done everything we can do at this point," he said. "It's very unfortunate for the family."