Lobstermen say a young man who was pulled overboard and down into the dangerously cold ocean Wednesday when his foot got caught in a lobster trap line is lucky that his crew mates reacted quickly and knew exactly what to do.
And they said it’s not uncommon to fall overboard on the job.
“It’s a lot more common than people know,” said David Cousens of Spruce Island, president of the 1,200-member Maine Lobstermen’s Association. “I’ve almost gone over twice in 40 years. I had the rope around my feet both times, and luckily had a sternman who acted quickly and got me undone.”
Cousens began lobstering when he was 10. Now 55, he has heard stories of other close calls, though most lobstermen are reluctant to share them.
“They don’t want to admit it. They’re embarrassed about it,” he said. “The safest thing you can do is make sure you don’t go alone.”
Devin Pesce, 19, of Lisbon Falls remained hospitalized Thursday at Southern Maine Health Care in Biddeford, where his condition had improved from serious to fair.
His family has remained with him at the hospital, where he was rushed from Cape Porpoise on Wednesday morning. They declined a request for an interview.
Pesce was fishing with his father and another crew member 15 miles offshore when his ankle got tangled in lobster gear that was being pushed off the stern. He was in the water, which the Coast Guard said was 38.7 degrees at the time, for three to four minutes before his father and Lucky Oppedisano pulled him back on board. Pesce was unresponsive, they gave him CPR and by the time they reached Cape Porpoise, he was able to walk off the boat.
Commercial fishing is the nation’s second-most dangerous profession, with 545 people dying on the job nationally in the period from 2000 to 2010. More than 30 percent of those fatalities were from falling overboard, according to the most recent data from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Jason Joyce, an eighth-generation lobsterman from Swan’s Island, said that in 26 years in the profession, he has fallen overboard twice while fishing in cold months.
Joyce, 44, a board member of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said the first time was in the mid-1990s, in November, when the water was still warm enough so he suffered only a “cold row ashore” from his mooring.
The second time was about 15 years ago, in February, when the water was shockingly frigid. He panicked, alone in the dark.
“I had one of those inflatable life jackets on. It was so cold, I didn’t even realize it had inflated,” Joyce said.
After struggling to pull himself back in the boat, he said, he immediately motored to shore and got a ride home, where he made the mistake of getting into a hot shower.
“I couldn’t control my breath for a couple hours,” Joyce said.
Joyce also recalls fishing with his father once in the early 1990s when his father had to kick off a boot that got tangled in gear, to avoid being pulled overboard.
At McMillan Offshore Survival Training in Belfast, John McMillan offers a course on boat safety and responding to a person overboard. He said he teaches his students a “one-10-one” rule for surviving in 50-degree water: one minute to stop gasping for breath and breathe normally, 10 minutes before functional coordination succumbs to the cold, and one hour before a person loses consciousness.
“First, you have to catch your breath,” he said. “The first minute, you don’t swim anywhere. You just calm yourself.”
For those 10 minutes of functional dexterity, McMillan teaches students to do things like inflate a life jacket or fire off a flare.
Most people who go overboard don’t die from the cold, he said.
“One of the misleading things we hear is (that) people die of hypothermia. We don’t die of hypothermia in a short period of time. The cause of death is drowning,” McMillan said.
Cold causes the body temperature to drop and slows blood flow and delivery of oxygen in the bloodstream until a person becomes unconscious and their head slips beneath the surface, he said.
Although the “one-10-one” rule applies to 50-degree water, the water where Pesce went overboard Wednesday was 38.7 degrees, said Coast Guard spokesman Connan Ingham. At that temperature, a person in the water would lose coordination in less than three minutes and lose consciousness in 15 to 30 minutes, Ingham said.
Many open-water experts talk about the importance of a life vest or survival gear to survive a long duration in the water, but it’s unclear whether a life vest would have helped Pesce.
A string of traps often has a half-dozen or more traps, each weighing 45 to 50 pounds. A common life vest has only 32 pounds of buoyancy, McMillan said.
Joyce said he was wearing a life vest when he fell overboard 15 years ago, but not many lobstermen do.
“A lot of the time, it’s hard to get a crew motivated on the boat to wear a vest,” Joyce said, and even lightweight inflatable ones chafe the neck.
Joyce said he recently reached a compromise with his crew, to wear flotation rain gear, pants and a jacket, each with five pounds of buoyancy.
Staff Writer David Hench contributed to this report.
Scott Dolan can be contacted at 791-6304 or at: [email protected]