HAMPTON BEACH, N.H. — A 25-year-old man who drowned in a boating accident Sunday has been identified as a Plaistow resident, and local officials are warning that owners of small boats — like the underpowered bass boat the man was fishing in — should never risk ocean travel.
Barry Arnold died Sunday night when a wave struck his small Sea Nymph fishing boat. He and Christian Frey, 46, were thrown from the boat into the chilly waters about 100 yards off Hampton Beach. Frey, who authorities said is from South Hampton, was rescued and treated for hypothermia at Exeter Hospital.
"They were maneuvering their vessel in the conditions present (Sunday) and were broadsided by a wave that ejected them," Sgt. Cheryl Clancy of New Hampshire Marine Patrol said yesterday.
Clancy said while life jackets were on the boat, the two were not wearing them.
Their Sea Nymph is a flat-bottomed, flat-bowed aluminum boat, about 12 feet long and typically used for fishing on ponds and calm lakes. Bass boats, as they are called, handle ocean waves poorly and tend to rock. It was powered by a 9.9-horsepower Mercury engine, normally used by small boats on ponds, lakes and in harbors.
"The investigation is ongoing, but there is no indication drugs or alcohol contributed to the incident," Clancy said.
The boat was seen about 7 p.m. while circling off Concord Street with no one aboard, and some witnesses said they saw the two men thrown into the water. The Hampton Fire Department launched a boat, while the Coast Guard launched four boats from the Portsmouth Harbor and Merrimack Station in Newburyport.
Searchers concentrated on the area a couple of hundred yards north and south of Concord Street, crisscrossing back and forth, recovering clothing and debris, while other searchers paced the beach.
The wind had been blowing strongly off the frigid water all day, causing whitecaps earlier. When the accident occurred, the wind was still blowing fairly briskly, but the whitecaps were gone and the waves were about 2 feet.
Dozens of people watched from the shore. One of them — Charles Sforza, 45, of Hampton — played a key role in recovering Arnold's body.
"We noticed it was a boat just 100 yards off shore and people were yelling," Sforza, a former Marine, said. "I started swimming out toward it, and that's when the firetrucks and police arrived. First, they got the guy, then there was confusion as to whether there was another person."
Sforza said emergency personnel started fanning out while they searched for the second person.
"I was out chest deep, looking in the waves," Sforza said, noting he grabbed a life ring and had a feeling they would find the second person quickly.
Sforza said rescuers had many false alarms when they thought they saw a head bobbing in the water before finding it was only a buoy. Sforza moved farther out until he was nearly 40 yards off shore when he thought he saw something.
"About three breaks of waves away, I thought I saw a body," Sforza said. "I swam out there and found him floating at the bottom of the waves, I went under and grabbed him by the belt and got him to shore."
Sforza said when he got back to the beach, emergency personnel immediately began chest compressions, but only foam was coming from Arnold's mouth.
"The chest compressions were to no avail," Sforza said. "He was about 50 yards from the boat."
Arnold was pronounced dead at Exeter Hospital, succumbing to hypothermia and cardiac arrest, according to a report from the Patrol Bureau, which is investigating the accident. He was in the water an estimated 90 minutes, police said. Recent water temperatures have ranged from the high 40s to low 50s, according to the National Oceanographic Data Center.
Not far from shore, Sforza said he speculates the two victims of the accident went overboard and began swimming for their boat before becoming exhausted and succumbing to the conditions.
"Maybe they tried to swim to the boat rather than the shore and the boat ended up 100 yards north," Sforza said. "We were able to swim to it, so you never know what happened."
Sforza said when he pulled Arnold from the water, it was after 8 p.m. and sunset was looming.
"It was getting dark and then there he was," Sforza said. "I'm just glad we got him before the tide did so at least his family can have that peace."
Ralph Steele, harbormaster for nearby Newburyport, Mass., said small, aluminum and flat-bottom boats have no business being in the open waters, and if you are questioning whether it is safe to go out on the waters, you probably should stay on land.
"God looks out for those people a lot," Steele said. "Those guys on the small boats, you look at them and think they must have a death wish."
Less than a month ago, an 18-foot aluminum boat capsized about a mile off Hampton Beach. All five passengers were rescued by a passing charter boat. Water temperatures were in the 40s, meaning survival can be only a matter of minutes.
Steele said everyone should learn from this past weekend's accident. Waters along the coast can be risky.
"Especially where the waves are breaking there, and who knows what happened," Steele said, noting the men were only 100 yards offshore. "They could have gotten excited about a catch, and the boat became top heavy, and then you hit a wave and you go over. The small boats are very dangerous."
Coast Guard Operations Unit Controller Chris Berry said by the time the Coast Guard responded to the incident, the first victim had been pulled from the ocean by a nearby boater.
"I recommend people have marine band radios on board, wear their life jackets at all times, and do the best to be in compliance with federal law," Berry said. "If boaters are interested in a voluntary exam by the Coast Guard Auxiliary, they can contact their local flotilla, and we will inspect their boat and let them know what they should have or get extra."
Berry said the narrow inlets of the harbor make for often treacherous conditions with strong waves battering boaters.
"In general, that area is no place for a bass boat not designed for the open ocean," Berry said. "The waves can really pile up."
Steele said boaters must remember to practice common sense when out on the ocean.
"It is unlike Boston here because the currents are going out fast, especially with the east winds, and the outgoing currents create big rollers," Steele said. "Common sense has to prevail. The duty of the captain is to assess the situation and decide whether your vessel is capable to handle the conditions."