September 8, 2013

A Maine fisherman's life lived large ends in a sea of questions

A friend who was with him on his last night talks about Billy McIntire's ill-fated swim, and the 'toughest decision of my life.'

By Matt Byrne
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

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Bouquets of flowers rest on the bow of the lobster boat Clover in memory of Billy McIntire in Perkins Cove recently. McIntire and his friend Tim Levesque, along with three women, took the boat out late on the night of Aug. 22. “None of this should have happened,” said Levesque, adding, “I’m the one who had to say ‘bye’ to him and let him go.

Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

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Fisherman Billy McIntire, shown at work in 2008, is presumed drowned after diving off his lobster boat late in the evening of Aug. 22, investigators say. His body has yet to be recovered.

Contributed photo

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The risks are part and parcel of a job that, in good times, can be deeply rewarding, as well as lucrative.

It was a double-edged attraction for McIntire, who reveled in the challenge of hand-fishing with rod and reel for the valuable tuna that lurk in the waters of Georges Bank.

"The kid was fearless," said a 55-year-old fellow fisherman in Ogunquit who would identify himself only as "Bacci."

"Nothing scared him," he said.

But it was sometimes an uncertain life, with winters spent hand-to-mouth. When he wasn't fishing, McIntire worked wherever he could, often taking a job as a carpenter on a local contractor's crew.

Without the usual complications of a mortgage or family, McIntire was free to pursue his whims, always looking for the next chance to chase tuna, or to meet an attractive woman who was perhaps just passing through.

Corky Decker spent summers with McIntire into their young adulthood, but moved to Alaska in 1983, leaving behind the "cove rat" era, a time in the 1970s and 1980s when he and McIntire were young and resilient. Nights spent partying bled seamlessly into long days fishing, the two of them emerging sleepless from dance clubs and bars onto the boats that carried them out to sea at first light.

After nearly 30 years away, Decker returned to Ogunquit last year, bought a boat, and made a go of it fishing, in an attempt to recapture the quixotic, magical atmosphere of youth that helped propel McIntire to legendary status among local fishermen.

For McIntire, it was as if it never stopped being 1983. Sure, he gained some weight and lost some hair, but the evolution seemed to stop there, Decker said.

"It was like I stepped back in time. (Billy) didn't change; he was the same guy," said Decker, noting one exception. "He had a different truck."

For years, Atlantic tuna was largely a sport fishery, enjoyed by lobstermen who sought a loftier challenge than the endless routine of setting, baiting and pulling traps all summer.

That changed in 1976 when the Magnuson-Stevens Act went into effect, barring foreign fishing vessels from within 200 miles of the U.S. coast, Decker said. The Japanese, who had heavily fished Atlantic tuna, were forced to buy the valuable fish from American fishermen.

"Fishermen before '76 would fish tuna for passion," Decker said. Then, "the tuna fish became worth money."

The number of harpoon boats exploded.

At the center of the action were McIntire and his father, who is now in his 70s, a master at hurling a harpoon at a swimming fish.

"They were light-years above us," Decker said. "Sonny would hit tuna fish that nobody else would have a chance in hell of hitting. The guy just didn't miss."

But with more boats also came greater regulation, Decker said.

Fish had to meet a minimum size to be considered legal, and a quota system is now in place. Thirty years ago, tuna would run four or five miles from the coast. Now, fishermen must venture out to Georges Bank, 100 miles offshore.

"It's been overfished, like all fisheries," said Ogunquit Harbormaster Fred Mayo.

The rules placed increased pressure on fishermen, and McIntire, rebellious by nature, liked to push the limits.

In 2009, he was fined $15,000 for his part in what authorities called a local black market for bluefin tuna, with fishermen selling directly to restaurants and chefs and bypassing the system of distributors who must be licensed by the government.

In all, seven people and three restaurants were implicated in the investigation, according to media reports at the time.

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Additional Photos

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Perkins Cove lobsterman Rick Knight, captain of the Michelle D, waits to unload his catch at the wharf late last month. Billy McIntire “was a hell of a nice guy,” Knight said of Perkins Cove’s unofficial “mayor,” who was lost at sea and presumed drowned on Aug. 22. McIntire was “always very popular and nice to be around,” Knight said.

Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

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Michelle Melanson and Tracy Charpentier, close friends of lost fisherman Billy McIntire, sit on the porch of their Ogunquit home late last month. According to Melanson, the empty chair in the foreground is where McIntire used to sit during his frequent visits.

Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer


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