A Cushing lobsterman has been charged with manslaughter in the deaths of two crewmen who were lost at sea when his boat capsized and sank near Matinicus Island during a storm in 2014.
Federal prosecutors have accused Christopher A. Hutchinson of taking oxycodone, using marijuana and drinking alcohol before taking out his boat, No Limits, early on Nov. 1, 2014, with two crewmen aboard. Tomas Hammond, 26, and Tyler Sawyer, 15, were never found after the boat flipped in heavy seas and sank several miles west of Matinicus as it was headed back to its home port in Tenants Harbor. Hutchinson, 28, made it into a life raft and was rescued.
He pleaded not guilty to the charges at a hearing in U.S. District Court in Portland on Monday. Dressed in a tie-dyed T-shirt and blue athletic pants, Hutchinson responded to questions from Magistrate Judge John Rich and appeared shaken and tired.
Hutchinson had a court-appointed attorney during the hearing, but said he had retained an attorney to represent him. His family attended the hearing but declined to comment about the case. The families of Hammond and Sawyer didn’t return calls seeking comment Monday.
Hutchinson, who was arrested Monday, will be held in detention until a bail hearing scheduled for Thursday. If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Hutchinson has been charged under the Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute, a little-used statute in the U.S. criminal code dating to the 1800s that is used in cases of misconduct or negligence by anyone responsible for managing a vessel, including a captain, pilot or owner.
The indictment charged Hutchinson in the deaths of Hammond, of Richmond, and Sawyer, of St. George and Waldoboro, on Nov. 1, 2014.
The boat was headed for a fishing area called Eleven Mile Ridge, despite National Weather Service warnings of dangerous weather and sea conditions.
After hauling lobster traps for several hours, Hutchinson decided to return to Tenants Harbor about 10:30 a.m., court documents say. Hutchinson tried to “surf” the waves, capsizing the boat.
In an interview a few days after the sinking, Hutchinson said the No Limits was on the way back to the mainland when the seas and winds quickly intensified, causing the 45-foot lobster boat to flip.
Hutchinson said that when the trio left the Linda Bean dock in Tenants Harbor early that morning, the wind was not blowing. He said he had fished that area off Matinicus for six years. He said his boat was large enough that he was not concerned about the weather.
“I’ve never seen the wind and seas pick up so fast,” he said.
Hutchinson said he checked the weather at 10 a.m., and the winds on nearby Matinicus Rock were reported at 22 knots. The crew hauled in one more line of 15 traps, then decided to head home, he said.
“We got hit by one large wave, and that pushed us into another. The windows to the wheelhouse blew out, and we began taking on water quickly,” Hutchinson said in an interview in the month after the sinking: “I’m not 100 percent sure what happened next, but the next thing I recall is being in the wheelhouse and the boat is upside down in the water.”
A weather buoy nearby reported wind gusts of 40 knots and waves of up to 14 feet.
The boat flipped about 11 a.m. several miles west of Matinicus, Hutchinson, who was not wearing a survival suit or flotation device, said he clung to the upturned hull by hanging onto a bronze fitting attached to the keel. The emergency position indicating radio beacon, or EPIRB, and life raft popped out from under the vessel more than two hours later, he said. The EPIRB activated at 1:36 p.m.
When he saw the raft come to the surface, Hutchinson said he swam the 15 to 20 feet to the raft and climbed on board. The raft was about 4 feet in diameter and was enclosed with a canopy.
He said he fired off one flare and waited. Eventually, he spotted a helicopter and fired off another flare.
An MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter from U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod arrived about 4:30 p.m., lowered a bucket to the raft and hauled Hutchinson up to the helicopter.
He was taken by helicopter to Maine Medical Center in Portland, where he was treated and released.
The No Limits was found later the same day, mostly submerged.
The Coast Guard suspended the search for Hammond and Sawyer the next day. Their bodies were never found. The Coast Guard issued letters of presumed death for both men late in November 2014.
Blood tests conducted on Hutchinson that night revealed he had oxycodone and marijuana in his system.
No one answered the phone at a number listed for Hutchinson in Cushing on Monday.