Lost at Sea

By Kate Yeomans | Boston Magazine |

The helicopter crew was eating dinner when the alarm sounded. An urgent
voice came over the PA system at Air Station Cape Cod: “Get the ready
H60 on the line for a capsized vessel 45 miles southeast of Nantucket.”

The four Coast Guardsmen dropped their forks, rushed to the locker room
to suit up, and ran across the parking lot, noticing first and foremost
how cold it was at the Massachusetts Military Reservation in Falmouth.
“That was one of the coldest nights of the winter,” station operations
officer Tom Maine recalls.

The wind-chill factor would soon drop to 13 degrees below zero. While
those who were on the ocean that night recall how the howling north
wind wreaked havoc on climbing seas, Maine says the pilots were more
worried about the cold. “Cape Cod pilots aren't afraid of wind,” he
says. “The skies were clearing, and it appeared the front had passed
through.”

A storm front had passed, but was now moving offshore, right to where
the crew were headed. An emergency beacon registered to the Northern
Edge, a 75-foot scalloper from New Bedford, had alerted the Coast Guard
that the boat was in trouble 75 miles away as the crow flies. “The crew
would be sucking the guts out of the aircraft to get out there,” Maine
says.

At the hangar, the pilot and copilot ran upstairs to the flight
planning room as the rescue swimmer, flight mechanic, and ground crew
opened the hangar doors and rolled the 65-foot-long helicopter outside.
Before departing, the crew worked down a detailed checklist to make
sure they and the helicopter were ready for flight—and would not become
a search-and-rescue case themselves.

 

Most New Bedford fishermen will tell you that the only time they know
they'll be home is Christmas Day, and not the week before. Prices often
peak then due to the holiday demand for seafood, and the perilous
winter weather is considered a worthwhile risk. So when the chance
arose to join the crew of the Northern Edge in mid-December, Pedro
Furtado took it.

Furtado, 22, had made one previous trip on the boat. He knew some of
the crew and liked the captain, Carlos Lopes. He also knew this would
be a short trip, less than a week, and the weather forecast gave no
cause for concern.

Built of steel in 1979, the Northern Edge worked as a trawler and
scalloper, and had two large net reels on the stern. In 1987 the net
reels were removed and the net ramps welded over. By 2003 a large
A-frame had been moved forward to an area above and around the
wheelhouse, and a mast and two booms were relocated to work one
13-foot-wide scallop dredge off each side. It was a hard-working vessel
and made several trips throughout the year as different areas opened
and closed to scalloping along the coast.

Around lunchtime on the 16th, the six-man crew took on a load of ice
and cast off the lines. It was sunny with a light breeze. As the
Northern Edge made its way through the protective New Bedford Hurricane
Barrier, across Buzzards Bay, behind Martha's Vineyard, and into the
expansive North Atlantic, Furtado sat with Lopes up in the wheelhouse.
It was late. Furtado was not on watch, but he couldn't sleep. He didn't
trust the vessel. “The thing I am not afraid of is the sea,” he says.
“But I was scared of that boat.”

He believed the Northern Edge was “too wet,” meaning the decks were
often awash. “It made big rolls to the left and right. It was
top-heavy.”

That evening, Furtado found a knife on deck and stuck it behind some
tape that was wrapped around the mast. If he should need to cut a line,
he figured, this would do.

Near midnight, the boat arrived at fishing grounds known as the
Nantucket Lightship Closed Area. For conservation purposes, it had been
closed to scalloping since 1994, but had finally reopened. The scallops
were now so thick it sometimes took less than 20 minutes to fill the
steel-chain mesh bag attached to each of the Northern Edge's scallop
dredges.

Regulations permitted only seven crew members on board, another effort
to conserve the scallop population. In reality, however, having fewer
men meant they slept less and worked harder. The Northern Edge crew
worked six-hour watches in two teams of three. Those on the captain's
watch would dredge. On the mate's watch, they'd clear the deck,
shucking the scallops by hand.

Lopes, 48, was the son of a fisherman and had spent most of his years
at sea. He and Furtado were both from Portugal—Lopes from the mainland
and Furtado from Ribeira Quente, a small fishing village on the Azorean
island of S㯠Miguel. With him on the captain's watch was Glen Crowley,
45, who was passionate about the Yankees and rock music. His two
daughters, both in their twenties, considered him their best friend.
Crowley had trained as a union carpenter, but loved the sea and had
worked as a scalloper for 17 years. He liked Lopes, but had his own
misgivings about the Northern Edge, on which he'd been laboring since
September.

Ray Richards, 38, served as mate. A terrific cook, he often baked
pineapple upside-down cake to share with friends at the Cultivator
Shoals, a waterfront watering hole. Furtado worked the mate's watch
with him.

Rounding out the crew were Juan Flores, 43, and his nephew Eric Moreno,
25. Flores, who worked the captain's watch, had two children and a
third on the way. He sent his earnings home to them in Mexico. Moreno
worked the mate's watch and had plans to get married at New Bedford's
City Hall before New Year's. There would be much to celebrate upon the
return from this trip.

The crew always ate together, so it was no surprise to find them at
4:30 a.m. on the 20th sharing Lopes's Portuguese recipe of peas and
chicken-foot stew. Then Lopes, Crowley, and Flores set about dredging
while the others slept. At about 10:30 a.m., the mate's watch took
over. The wind was shifting. “The weather is getting rough,” Furtado
said to Richards. “Let's go home.”

“Hey, if it were up to me, I'd already be home,” Richards replied.

The 10 or so boats working the scallop grounds off Nantucket often
spoke with each other by marine radio, sharing news of where the tows
were good or not so good. Each of the men on the Northern Edge kept one
eye on their own boat and the other on the weather, the sea, and the
boats around them.

Tony Alvernaz, captain of the Diane Marie, had known Lopes for more
than 20 years. On December 20, Alvernaz noticed a boat working to the
south of him and wondered if it was the NorthernEdge. He was surprised,
since the scallops had thinned out in that area. He was also surprised
that Lopes had chosen to tow in a northerly direction, dead into the
growing seas. Alvernaz liked to tow downwind, making for a more
comfortable ride in following seas, then jog back up into the wind to
start the tow again. When Lopes called on the radio, Alvernaz asked if
it was his boat working to the south.

“Yeah, that's me,” Lopes replied. “This might be my last tow, or one more, then I'm going to jog home.”

Alvernaz was due to go off watch at 4:30 that afternoon. Weather
forecasters had called for winds to top out at 40 to 45 knots later
that night, but the northwest winds had already started to blow, coming
on faster than expected. “It sends a little shiver up your spine when
it comes on that fast,” he says.

At some point during that final tow, Furtado was standing by the
starboard rail of the Northern Edge, shucking through a load of
scallops, when he felt the boat surfing oddly down a following sea. It
kept turning to one side and didn't stop. Then water poured in over the
rail, making a thunderous roar as it broke up any gear in its path.

Furtado threw his shucking knife aside and ran to the stern, where he
froze in panic. Flores, Moreno, and Richards were already there and
snapped him out of it. Furtado and Crowley yelled to Lopes, who was up
in the wheelhouse, to let go of the towing wires that dragged the
scallop dredges across the bottom.

Flores and Moreno shouted to Furtado to get the knife he had stuck to
the mast. As they worked to cut loose the white canister on the
cuttinghouse roof that contained an inflatable life raft, Furtado set
about opening the scupper gates to release the water on deck. Lopes
yelled to him to go back. That's when Furtado looked up and saw the
white canister in the water. “I saw it floating away,” he remembers,
“and I thought, 'That's the thing that's going to save me.' And I just
jumped.”

The seawater temperature was 47 degrees. Furtado grabbed the line
leading to the canister and tried to hand it to Flores and Moreno,
still standing on the porch of the cuttinghouse roof. The boat
continued to roll, and the railing forced Furtado underwater. He kicked
off his boots and fought back up to the surface, where he started
pulling on the line to inflate the raft. Then the Northern Edge
turtled—turned upside down—and began to sink.

“I was yelling to them,” Furtado says, “and Ray was yelling, 'Peter! Peter! Help me!'”

Furtado yelled for Richards to grab the rope. Richards hollered
something more, but this time it was garbled. Then they were gone. The
Northern Edge dropped beneath the surface, leaving only Furtado and the
life raft behind.

“Now it's just me,” he thought, “and now I'm the one who's going to survive.”

On board the Diane Marie, the crew were finishing their last tow of the
day when the mate, Paul Rego, asked Alvernaz, “Where'd the Northern
Edge go?”

“I looked at him like it was the strangest, stupidest question,” Alvernaz remembers. “'What do you mean where did it go?'

“The Northern Edge should've been off the port quarter,” Alvernaz
explains. “I had one target out two miles, but that was the Kris &
Amy. We kept looking out to sea, waiting for it to come up in an
uproll, and it just didn't. So I first tried to call Carlos on
[channel] 69 and then on 16 and he didn't answer. Then I said to
everyone on 16, 'I think something's happened to the Northern Edge.'”

Alone in 10-foot breaking seas, Furtado was struggling. “The rope to
pop the life raft wasn't tight,” he says, “so I had to pull and pull
and pull.”

Finally, the canister burst and the raft inflated. Furtado climbed in.
He stripped off his heavy, soaked sweatshirt and found a set of flares.
There was a flashlight, too, but it didn't work. In the dark, unable to
read the directions on the flares, he had to trust the seamanship and
safety training he'd gotten five years earlier, as required by the
Portuguese government. He shot off each flare by feel alone. A misfire,
he knew, could send the flare into his own raft. Instead, the first
flare, and those that followed, arced upward, into a dark, cloud-filled
sky that had just started to spit snowflakes. He shot two more flares
into the air, then started in on the eight handheld ones. “You are
supposed to wait and not light hand flares until someone spots you,” he
says, “but I was panicked and I just kept lighting them.”

Alvernaz called the Coast Guard on his satellite telephone. “It's an
emergency,” he said with remarkable calm. “Yeah, you need a chopper.
You need a chopper [with] lights in the Lightship Closed Area.”

A Coast Guardsman in Boston called Air Station Cape Cod at about 5:10
p.m. At 5:45, the helicopter crew began their final checks before
taking off. Then, as they hovered, an amber caution light came on. The
tail-rotor deicing system was down. The men on the crew knew it was
snowing where they were going, and should the tail rotor ice up in snow
and sea spray, the helicopter could crash. With another helicopter 100
yards away, they decided to return to the hangar.

At 6:45 p.m., a Coast Guard Falcon jet arrived at the coordinates
Alvernaz had given and began a two-hour-and-40-minute search. The crew
spotted two strobe lights—one affixed to an empty life jacket, the
other on the still-signaling emergency beacon—but no survivors.

At 7:10, the helicopter crew arrived and searched for an hour and a
half before returning to the air station for fuel, just before the
Falcon left. That would be the helicopter's only appearance at the
scene that evening, however, because the extreme cold was causing some
mechanical problems. Early the next morning, two Coast Guard cutters
and another helicopter would join the search.

After at least 30 minutes alone in the dark in a roiling sea, Furtado
saw the lights of the Diane Marie and, on deck, a flashlight moving
around. He stood up, somehow able to maintain his balance in the rough
sea, and waved. He had worked on the Kathy Ann, another boat in the
same company fleet as the Diane Marie, and had met the crew. He watched
as the Diane Marie drifted toward him. Then the sea flipped the life
raft and tossed Furtado and his last two flares overboard.

“I righted it and climbed back in,” Furtado says, “but I wasn't sure if
the people on deck had seen me, and now I didn't have any flares.”

But Alvernaz had seen Furtado, and he maneuvered around him. He stared, dumbfounded, as a cresting wave flipped the raft again.

“I just froze,” Alvernaz says, “and thought, 'Oh, shit. That guy's
gone. He's dead. There's no way he's going to make it if he's in the
water again.'”

Furtado struggled back up to the surface. “But this is how God works,”
he says. “When I surfaced, the life raft was right over my head.”

Furtado has not yet returned to sea and spends a lot of time thinking
about the events of December 20. Coast Guard investigators now believe
that the Northern Edge's starboard dredge snagged on the bottom of the
ocean, holding the boat broadside before oncoming waves, which flooded
the deck.

Attorney Tom Hunt, who is representing Furtado and the families of the
lost crew in a negligence suit against the Northern Edge's owner,
disagrees but declines to comment. And it's in his office, just behind
the New Bedford Whaling Museum and within walking distance of the
waterfront, that Furtado now speaks one more time about the tragedy.
It's a story that has sparked passionate debate about the discrepancies
between the intricate web of regulations regarding how, when, and where
fishermen may conduct their work and the dearth of rules concerning
safety onboard ships. (The Commercial Fishing Industry Vessel Safety
Act of 1988 requires certain equipment to be carried onboard, but there
is no mandate that safety training be logged.) Furtado believes it was
only the training he received in his native village in the Azores that
kept him alive. And he is forever grateful that Flores and Moreno
snapped him out of his panic and told him to get the knife to cut loose
the life raft. “Those Mexicans,” he says with melancholy, “saved me.”

Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2006/05/lost-at-sea/