Drifting boat sparks harrowing high seas rescue

F/V Royal Fortune, above at the town marina in Northeast Harbor, was towed in Nov. 22 by the U.S. Coast Guard after its engine cut out in dangerous conditions including high winds and seas.  PHOTO BY LIZ GRAVES

F/V Royal Fortune, above at the town marina in Northeast Harbor, was towed in Nov. 22 by the U.S. Coast Guard after its engine cut out in dangerous conditions including high winds and seas.

SOUTHWEST HARBOR — Combined efforts of lobstermen and a U.S. Coast Guard rescue crew brought the Northeast Harbor-based lobster boat Royal Fortune safely to port last month when its engine stalled off Great Duck Island in high seas.

Captain Ronnie Musetti and two sternmen reported no injuries or major damage following a harrowing nine-hour ordeal.

“We had just finished our day of hauling and it was getting windy out” when the engine died, Musetti said. “It had been breezy all day, but it was picking up fast.” Before his vessel was safely back in port, waves would continue to build to as high as 15 feet.

Musetti ran through his troubleshooting routine on the boat’s John Deere engine. He’s 18 years old but has already been fishing for seven years. “I replaced a fuel filter that seemed to be pretty clogged up, even though I had replaced it a few days before,” he said. “That worked for a few minutes, but the engine cut out again.

“I couldn’t figure out what was going on. I messed around with it for half an hour. Then I called Andy.”

Fisherman Andy Mays braved high seas to assist a friend when the engine quit on his lobsterboat. FILE PHOTO

Fisherman Andy Mays braved high seas to assist a friend when the engine quit on his lobsterboat.

Fisherman Andy Mays is an old friend of Musetti’s family. He was driving his kids home from basketball practice when he got a call on his cell phone and offered to go out in his own boat and tow Royal Fortune in.

Mays headed out from Southwest Harbor in his boat, Lost Airmen, at 1:20 p.m., he said.

“It was going well until I got outside the Western Way to Flynn’s Ledge,” Mays said. “I slowed down to a little more than an idle and it steadily worsened. The wind and the tide were opposing, the tide really started running out.”

On top of his engine troubles, Musetti’s spotlight on Royal Fortune had stopped working earlier in the day. And his VHF radio couldn’t transmit.

He had been working on the boat’s electronics with Robert Kramp of Kramps Electronics in Seal Cove a few days before, he said, and “we fixed about half of the stuff. We were planning to come back to the VHF and other issues in a few days.

“Thankfully, we broke down in a spot where we weren’t in danger of hitting a ledge or anything.”

His chart plotter and radar were working, though, so despite bad visibility he could follow Mays’ approach.

“I was running down the east side of the Ducks toward the lighthouse,” Mays said. “When I got to the old Coast Guard boathouse and boat ramp, which Ronnie’s grandfather built, Ronnie sent me a text message that said ‘I’m three miles southeast of you.’ You could only see a few hundred yards.” It was 3 p.m.

“Just when I thought, ‘am I even close?’ I saw him,” Mays said. “I got about 200 yards from him and I looked up and there was a really, really big wave.”

The wave was curling at the top, Mays said, and was going to break down onto Lost Airman.

He turned the wheel hard and gave his engine a shot of power to face his boat into the seas.

“I didn’t want it to roll me over. It broke, hit my windows, and I came through the other side. It felt like I fell for a long time. I looked up and there was another one just like it.

“I was thinking about that guy off Matinicus who had capsized the week before. I thought, that’s how that guy capsized, his windows broke. I was a little tense.”

It wasn’t safe, in such powerful waves, to bring the boats very close together. With the wind and no radio, it was hard to communicate. “He would bob up on a wave and come surfing down,” Mays said. “We could close 50 yards in a second.”

Mays tied a hammer to the end of a length of line and flung it toward Musetti. It missed the boat, but Musetti nabbed it with his gaff before the rope sank. He pulled it aboard and tied it off to his towing bit.

“Once I put my boat in gear again,” Mays said, “I looked back and it seemed like he was four stories above me. The towing line had gone way slack which is very bad. I put my boat in gear to take a strain, then a wave passes underneath Ronnie and pulled me so fast that line went completely tight and jerked the boat.”

They tried adding more line to make the tow longer.

“We started steaming, caught a wave, and the line parted,” Musetti said.

The chock on Royal Fortune’s bow was ripped out.

By then it was 3:30 p.m. and there would only be another half-hour of light. Mays decided they needed to call the Coast Guard.

By cell phone from Sector Northern New England in Portland, Coast Guard officers suggested Musetti and his crew don survival suits. The gloves on the suits made it difficult to operate their cell phones.

“It was a good idea in hindsight,” Musetti said, because he and his crew were beginning to get cold. Their clothes were damp from hauling and taking spray all day. They took turns warming up in the cabin near the engine.

Royal Fortune and Lost Airmen had another half-hour to be tossed about waiting for the Coast Guard’s 47-foot motor lifeboat to arrive from Southwest Harbor.

“I just wanted to get in,” Musetti said. “I wasn’t really worried, I was confident that everything was safe. It was just stressful. I didn’t want it to get too dark.”

They hadn’t moved very far in the time they were adrift, Musetti said, about two miles. They were out near the Eastern Maine Shelf weather buoy.

Coast Guard Petty Officer Calvin Legge was the coxswain of the motor lifeboat, with a crew of three. It took a few tries to get the towing line to Royal Fortune, but the tow went smoothly once they did.

“We have a person designated as the tow watch, ensuring the safety of the tow,” Legge said. “A couple times on the trip back in, the watch got my attention to say he couldn’t see the Royal Fortune because the waves were so high.”

From Musetti’s perspective, though, a tall light above the flybridge on the Coast Guard vessel assured him his rescuers were still there.

Mays headed back in to Southwest Harbor once Musetti was set up with the tow. He asked a friend to bring Musetti’s truck from Northeast Harbor.

When they were all safely at the lower town dock, after 9 p.m., Mays, Musetti and Legge shook hands.

“I went seven years without having anything remotely that intense,” said Legge, a Boston native. “Now that I’ve had a case like that, I can’t say that I would look forward to the next one.”

“That guy ought to get recognized,” Mays said of Legge. “He was in the conditions for six hours and he was towing Ronnie for four. He really came through.”

Liz Graves

Liz Graves

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Former Islander reporter and editor Liz Graves grew up in California and came to Maine as a schooner sailor.

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