ROCKLAND – As John Kenney and his three crewmates pulled on their survival suits and prepared to abandon their sinking scallop dragger in 12- to 14-foot Atlantic seas, the Rockland man made a split-second decision that likely saved their lives, he said Thursday.
He grabbed a tiny emergency radio beacon and tied it to his survival suit.
That beacon helped a Coast Guard helicopter spot their life raft two hours after they abandoned the Canadian Mist 32 miles southeast of Nantucket, Mass., on Wednesday morning.
The four, suffering from mild hypothermia, were rescued in relatively good condition. Kenney, 43, recalled the ordeal Thursday back home in Rockland. “I didn’t think we were going to make it,” he said, standing on the Rockland Fish Pier.
Just before jumping into the 52-degree ocean water, one of the other men found some rope to tie the four together “so we wouldn’t drift apart,” he said.
The seas were so rough that the life raft rack was ripped from the 44-foot boat. The raft was stuck in the rack until they could break it free.
Kenney, owner David Oakes, 37, of Sanford and two South Portland men, Donald Dean, 23, and John Coolbroth, 25, wrestled for 45 minutes in the open ocean to pry the raft open. After another hour in the raft, they were spotted and rescued.
Kenney said the Canadian Mist got under way around 10:30 a.m. Tuesday from a Provincetown dock, bound for open waters along the inner bank of Georges Bank off Nantucket
They steamed about 12 hours to the fishing grounds and had hauled in 360 pounds of scallops by 8 a.m. Wednesday.
Then the southeast wind shifted unexpectedly to the northwest.
“Instantly, it turned like the drop of a hat,” he said. “It came out of nowhere.”
The wind started to blow at 40 to 45 knots and the seas kicked up to 12 to 14 feet. Kenney described it as “a nasty nor’west wind.”
The crew started heading in about 9:30 a.m., but the waves began crashing over the bow, filling the stern.
They pulled the pen boards out to open the back of the stern so water would wash out, but it wouldn’t. The boat kept taking on water.
The crew began “throwing stuff” out of the boat to lighten the load, he said.
“I put the [engine] full throttle, hoping it would wash the water off the deck,” Kenney said. But “with the seas, there was no coming clear of it. … We put a mayday out and that was it,” he said.
There was barely enough time to do that. “It dropped right out from under us,” Kenney said, and the boat sank within 10 minutes or so after waves starting overtaking the wooden vessel.
“We had to abandon the boat,” he said.
By grabbing the radio beacon, Kenney figured the device at least would lead rescuers to his body.
After an hour in the raft, the fishermen spotted a U.S. Coast Guard Falcon jet overhead. Then a Coast Guard rescue helicopter arrived and pulled them to safety.
“If it had been dark, I have my doubts anyone would have made it,” Kenney said.
“They did a super job under the conditions,” Kenney said, praising the Coast Guard rescuers.
“These guys had all the right safety equipment,” Chief Petty Officer Scott Carr of Boston said Thursday. The Coast Guard reported receiving the mayday at 9:41 a.m. The crew was picked up about 11:30 a.m.
Kenney has his own 40-foot fishing boat, the Amaska, named for his three daughters Amber, 19, Ashley, 16, and Kaitlin, 12. He keeps it moored near the Rockland Fish Pier.
On Dec. 1, when scalloping season in Maine opens, he will start scalloping from his own boat and plans to lobster in the spring.
He acknowledged that in the minutes the Canadian Mist was sinking, he recalled four fellow fishermen on the vessel Candy B II that perished Oct. 10, 2003, not far from where the Canadian Mist was fishing.
“Instantly, that went through my mind,” he said.
Kenney was friends with all the Candy B II crew.
“We kind of teamed up,” he said, explaining that a few Maine fishing boats would hang together when they fished off Provincetown because “there’s safety in numbers.”
Besides being close to his wife, Deanna, and his daughters, Kenney said, fishing in Maine allows him “plenty of islands to hide behind” to avoid bad weather. “Down there, there’s no place to hide.”
Another crewmate who could be reached Thursday, John Coolbroth, was resting at home in South Portland on Thursday night. “I’m doing better. I’m a lot warmer,” he said in a brief telephone interview.
“That was a first,” Coolbroth said. “In a couple of day’s I’ll be back out on the water.”