GOULDSBORO — Lobster fisherman Bruce Crowley was returning home from Ellsworth about 6 p.m. June 22 when he noticed the pickup truck used by a local tour company to haul its kayaks was still parked at the seawall in Corea.
Cheryl Brackett, who, with her husband, Ed, 63, owns SeaScape Kayak & Bike in Winter Harbor, was pacing the beach.
“She said, ‘My husband and two other people are out and they were supposed to be back at 4 p.m.,’” Crowley recalled.
Crowley drove over to the nearby Corea Lobster Co-op to his lobster boat, Cindy Lee, and with fisherman Lenny Young onboard headed out to search for the trio while there was still daylight.
They brought a skiff with them, thinking they might need it if they found any of the kayakers.
Once out in the bay they encountered fisherman Mike Hunt, who was out in his boat looking for the kayakers in Gouldsboro Bay.
The fishermen are intimately acquainted with the islands near the mouth of the bay — Sally Island, Bald Rock, Eastern Island, Sheep Island — and also know how treacherous the area can be.
“It is dangerous when the conditions are right,” said Crowley. “You take a 7 or 8 knot tide and it’s going against a 20-to-30 knot wind, it just makes the chop unbelievable, even for a lobster boat.”
Crowley is 61 and has been fishing in these waters since he was 10. He suggested to Hunt that they begin looking offshore with Hunt heading southwest and Crowley and Young southeast.
“If they got caught in the current between Bald Rock and Eastern Island, that’s the strongest current that comes out of Gouldsboro Bay,” Crowley said.
As Crowley and Young headed southeast, Crowley noticed something yellow about a mile away.
As they drew closer they could see a yellow kayak, capsized, and a woman clinging to it. They called the Coast Guard, which had a vessel three miles away.
“She had a rope wrapped around her wrist two or three times,” Crowley said. “Her eyes were open but she couldn’t talk or blink.”
The woman, Jennifer Popper, 48, of Plainfield, N.J., was limp and thus heavy. They tried unsuccessfully to pull her up over the four-foot side of the boat.
They then spun the boat around and tried to pull her up by the straps on her lifejacket.
The jacket began to slip off and so they stopped, worried that without the jacket she would slip below the surface of the water.
Young launched the skiff and came up alongside the woman.
He began pulling her on board slowly, easing back repeatedly as the skiff took on water.
“I grabbed her by the shoulder straps of her jacket,” said Young. “The poor girl got scraped across that stern.”
In the meantime, the Coast Guard vessel arrived, pulled up alongside the skiff and brought Jennifer Popper aboard.
Once on shore she was taken by LifeFlight to Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, where she eventually regained consciousness.
Crowley and Young continued on for 300 to 400 yards and found Ed Brackett, the guide who had taken Popper and her husband, Michael Popper, 54, out on the kayak tour.
Brackett was unresponsive.
“His face and mouth were out of the water,” Crowley said.
Mike Hunt had come up alongside them and was able to pull Brackett’s body across his open stern.
By then there were as many as 10 fishing boats circling the area, along with a Coast Guard helicopter and the Marine Patrol.
Jonathan Coffin, who fishes out of Dyer Bay in Steuben, found Michael Popper. Like Brackett, he was unresponsive.
The Chief Medical Examiner’s office in Maine conducted autopsies on Popper and Brackett.
“Both deaths were caused by accidental drowning,” said Mark Belserene, administrator for the Chief Medical Examiner.
Jennifer Popper was discharged from Eastern Maine Medical Center June 24 and returned to Plainfield, N.J. the following day.
Local radio personality Chris Popper, who is Michael Popper’s cousin, was in Jennifer’s hospital room when she was interviewed by the Marine Patrol.
Chris said the couple had been out kayaking with Brackett on several occasions in prior trips to the area.
“She said they went from calm seas to rain and 30 mph winds and five foot seas,” Chris said. “She was able to right her kayak and get back in, but was not able to get the skirt back in and could not bail the water. She capsized again.”
She told the Marine Patrol that Michael Popper swam toward the kayak that contained cell phones in a plastic bag.
“That was the last she saw of him,” Chris said. “She said Ed hung on for a while. He was holding onto his kayak. Unfortunately, she saw him pass away.”
Chris said Jennifer might have survived more than five hours in the frigid water because she managed to get a large portion of her upper body out of the water.
A wake was planned for her husband in New Jersey June 28 followed by a funeral the following day.
“She is terribly bruised,” Chris said of Jennifer. “She is incredibly lucky and physically, she will make a full recovery. But it was devastating for her to watch Ed pass away as well as coping with the loss of her husband.”
Chris said the Marine Patrol and Coast Guard went beyond the call of duty in assisting Jennifer.
They went to the cottage in Winter Harbor that she and her husband had rented.
“They packed up all of her things and took them to the hospital,” Chris said.
Ed Brackett was well known on the Schoodic Peninsula and in the general area, both as a kayak guide and as code enforcement officer in Gouldsboro, Sorrento and Sullivan.
His memorial service will be held at 4:30 p.m. Saturday, July 2, at Hammond Hall in Winter Harbor.
The service will be followed by a reception at the Masonic Hall in Winter Harbor.
His wife, Cheryl Brackett, issued the following statement from the family:
“Words cannot describe the shock and grief our family is experiencing over the loss of our beloved Ed. Ed was an incredible husband, father, grandfather, brother, son, and friend to so many in our local community and beyond. Our thoughts and prayers are with the friends and family of Jennifer and Michael Popper during this difficult time. Though we are devastated over the tragic loss of Ed and Michael, we are so grateful that Jennifer’s condition continues to improve.”
“We would like to take this time to thank the local fishermen and members of the Coast Guard and Marine Patrol for their efforts in the search for Ed, Michael and Jennifer. We would also like to express deep gratitude towards our friends, family and members of the local community for their support and kindness during this difficult time.”
The dangers of hypothermia
According to the National Weather Service, hypothermia occurs when the body’s temperature dips below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees. Warning signs include uncontrollable shivering, memory loss, disorientation, incoherence, slurred speech, drowsiness and obvious exhaustion.
Factors such as body fat, age, alcohol consumption and wetness can affect how long hypothermia takes to strike. The situation becomes much more dangerous when someone falls into the water.
In water 32.5 degrees Fahrenheit or colder, one might not survive more than 15 to 45 minutes. The U.S. Coast Guard states that a person in that situation would undergo shock within the first two minutes and some experience functional disability before 30 minutes.
The Personal Flotation Device Manufacturers Association states that in water 50 to 60 degrees, exhaustion or unconsciousness will occur in one to two hours with an expected survival time of one to six hours.
Memorial Service for Maine guide Ed Brackett of Gouldsboro
When: Saturday, July 2, 4:30 p.m.
Where: Hammond Hall, 427 Main St., Winter Harbor
Reception following the service at the Masonic Hall, School Street, Winter Harbor. Refreshments welcome.