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 mbyrne@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

OGUNQUIT – In the life and times of Billy McIntire, it was hardly an unusual sight.

click image to enlarge

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

click image to enlarge

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

Additional Photos Below

Before midnight under a nearly full moon, McIntire -- a consummate hard worker with a jovial reputation and a penchant for having a good time -- was heading for his boat, three women and a friend in tow.

In the days since his death that night, the few witnesses who know firsthand how McIntire was lost have largely remained silent or have all but left town, only fueling rumors and speculation about his final moments.

"None of this should have happened," said Tim Levesque, who set off with McIntire that night, along with the three women, whom they had met at a bar. After a night of drinks and dancing, they headed to the first boat McIntire had ever owned, the Clover.

The night ended with McIntire lost at sea. He remains missing and presumably drowned.

McIntire, 51, partied harder, fished longer and landed more monsters, often in second-rate boats, than almost anyone else he knew. And he knew everyone worth knowing in this seaside town, and was a boisterous, gleeful presence in the lives of nearly all of them.

After a lifetime spent at sea, McIntire was comfortable operating in the harshest of conditions, often fishing more than 100 miles from shore for as long as a week in search of a prize-winning tuna. But on the night he disappeared, the waves were calm, the skies were clear.

Yet, after a few minutes treading water offshore near Perkins Cove's bell buoy, Levesque would find McIntire floating face down in the gentle waves, his quiet death a jarring end to a life lived at full volume.

FRIENDS WHEREVER HE WENT

On land, there was hardly a business, restaurant, barroom or fishing operation where McIntire was not a welcome regular. Called the unofficial town mayor, he was a grinning, fun-loving man with a penchant for making fast friends wherever he went.

At sea, McIntire was exposed to constant risk. Commercial fishing, especially in New England, consistently ranks among the most dangerous occupations in the country, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On average, 46 people died nationwide as a result of fishing-related accidents each year between 2000 and 2010 -- a total of 545 in that decade. A third of the fatalities were crew who fell overboard.

"I don't think it's fair to judge him or what he did by the standards of how the rest of us have to live our lives," said an acquaintance, Jay, who declined to give his last name for fear of offending the grieving family. "The fishermen work extremely hard, and they play hard, too."

The inquiry by authorities into the circumstances of McIntire's death remains open and active. The Maine Marine Patrol, which is looking into the case, has declined to release details of its investigation, including a key interview with the only person who likely witnessed McIntire's death, a woman so far identified only as Stephanie. McIntire's body has yet to be recovered, and the rest of the McIntire family, overwhelmed by grief, declined to be interviewed.

Yet in interviews with more than a dozen close friends, associates and community members, a fuller picture has emerged of McIntire, who played as hard as he worked, living from summer to summer, taking jobs where he could find them, all the while surrounding himself with the friends and family whom he cherished.

'COVE RATS' SHARE MEMORIES

Each summer, from the cold Atlantic Ocean, McIntire would extract a living by lobstering with his father, Sonny, or harpooning and hand-reeling bluefin tuna.

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.

HARDWORKING, HARD LIVING

McIntire's fast-and-loose lifestyle came at the expense of financial security. Decker said that McIntire was still making payments on his commercial boat, the 42-foot Clover, and had to borrow money from his father to pay for fuel.

In a good season, some tuna fishermen earn enough to reinvest in their boat and gear, save for the winter, and sock away a few extra dollars.

For McIntire, who, before last year, had never owned his own boat, a season's profit of $50,000 or $60,000 could vanish in a few short months, Decker said.

"He spent it as fast as he made it," Decker said.

Friends said McIntire, from early adulthood, had a taste for indulgences: good food, good drink, some marijuana -- occasionally something harder -- and women. "He had two interests at that age. It was women, and it was tuna fish," Decker said. "We were alcoholics and drug addicts, but that's when we were back in our 20s. I stayed away from the cocaine. Other guys didn't. But we all drank ungodly amounts of alcohol."

But when the fun had to stop, Billy Mac had no qualms about hard work -- his physical vitality was the key to his carefree lifestyle. By all accounts, McIntire not only lived hard, he enjoyed working hard.

Although the 2012 tuna season was not easy, McIntire landed at least one monster that year: A blurry photo shows McIntire, wearing a hat, hooded sweatshirt and orange waders, holding one arm up against the hanging fish, the top of its tail towering above him.

BILLY MCINTIRE'S LAST NIGHT

Tim Levesque, 36, crossed paths professionally with McIntire this spring, when McIntire was hired by the same contractor Levesque worked for as a carpenter.

Although they had met only briefly before, Levesque already knew much about McIntire -- his reputation preceded him.

Levesque, tan and muscular with a scraggly beard and a gravel-trap voice, had thrown himself into his work after a difficult divorce 18 months ago. The crew he worked with became his refuge, where he could crack jokes and sing along to the radio with his buddies.

"We're a great crew," Levesque said. "We all get along so well. It's tough to find. We all are shoulder to shoulder."

At the center of the camaraderie was Billy Mac, who took a liking to Levesque. McIntire began spending time after work with Levesque, who was in full-blown social atrophy.

They grew closer, one of McIntire's newest relationships blossoming into a strong bond, Levesque said. McIntire was planning to take Levesque fishing.

"We talked about everything," Levesque said. "Always about fishing, always about life. (He) just took that father-figure role."

So when McIntire and Levesque finished work on Aug. 22, a particularly productive day, Levesque said, McIntire suggested they go for a few drinks.

Out on the town, they befriended three women, two of them who spoke little English and seemed to be from Eastern European countries.

The third woman, Stephanie, also spoke with an accent but communicated easily. Statuesque and tattooed, she seemed ready to have a good time that night, Levesque said.

Darkness fell, and the group headed for a second bar in downtown Ogunquit. Stephanie drove, with Levesque sitting with the other two women in the backseat, flirting and trying to talk through the language barrier.

Since his divorce, Levesque said his social life had all but shut down, but McIntire was helping him come out of his shell. Spending an evening in the company of a few women was a welcome change of pace, he said.

After a round of martinis at the second bar, the group moved to a nearby nightclub, ordered beers and hit the dance floor.

When they emerged from the bar, McIntire had another idea, Levesque recalled.

"Billy had said something about, 'Let's go for a boat ride.'"

'I'M SORRY ... I GOTTA LET YOU GO'

Once the group was aboard the Clover, McIntire pointed the boat at the bell buoy several hundred yards from shore, Stephanie's arm around his waist as he steered the vessel out.

Nighttime on Perkins Cove is dark and quiet, and that evening the waves were calm.

McIntire suggested the three women climb onto the buoy so someone could snap a photo.

"I looked at him, like, 'Absolutely not,'" Levesque said. "I laughed, and they were like, 'No way.'"

No one discussed taking a swim. Levesque remembers turning around to find McIntire stripping down to his boxer shorts, and the longtime fisherman diving from the port-side gunwale.

"He jumped in, came up, flipped his hair back, and within seconds, Stephanie jumped in right behind him," Levesque said.

The two joined in the water, limbs entwined, both paddling with their hands.

Levesque, seeing that they seemed content, turned to the other two women still aboard the vessel.

"Maybe 30 seconds went by, and I heard someone yell, 'I can't swim,'" Levesque said. He called out to the couple in the water, and heard again, this time in tones of distress, a voice from the darkness:

"I can't swim."

Levesque yelled again and McIntire responded, saying he would swim to the boat with Stephanie. But the voices were fading.

Levesque leapt to the controls, swung the vessel toward the sound of the voices, and motored to where he believed they were, shouting to them over the thrum of the diesel engine.

"I saw someone coming up," Levesque said. "The momentum of the boat was still going, and I saw her. And I saw Billy, probably 15, 20 feet (away) and he was floating, his head was down."

In one smooth motion, Levesque pulled the woman aboard. She broke down, hysterical, he said, as the other women sat frozen in shock.

Levesque tied a rope to one of the cleats and dove in for McIntire.

He managed to bring McIntire to the boat's edge, but it was nearly three feet between the water's surface and the edge of the boat's railing.

"I repeatedly just tried to go down and push him up from his butt, up on the boat, and he'd just teeter off."

Levesque tried again, with his hands locked on the boat's edge and his feet pinned to the hull.

"Finally one of the girls came over and grabbed him by the arm. She just slipped off him immediately."

Levesque positioned McIntire's body across his thighs, and slowly, using all of his strength, attempted to nudge McIntire's limp body aboard.

"I remember just holding him there," he said. "I had him pinned up against the side of the boat with my body, and I was screaming, just screaming."

Clinging to the boat, Levesque realized he was wrapped in the rope that he had taken as a lifeline, and it had wrapped in the boat's propeller. With each tug, the line was tightening around him.

"At that point I knew something was happening to me, I could feel something in me and it wasn't right," said Levesque, struggling to hold back his emotions. "I looked down at Billy and I told him, 'I'm sorry, buddy, but I gotta let you go.' I had to make the toughest decision of my life."

Levesque flopped onto the deck exhausted, ears ringing, his nerves on fire from exertion. His head throbbed from impacting the hull, and a cut had opened up the bridge of his nose.

"I knew I had three people on the boat, and I knew I had to take care of them," he said, recounting tearfully the events that have played like an endless movie reel in his mind.

"I got to the controls and I yelled, 'Mayday, mayday, Billy Mac is in the water!'"

FUTILE SEARCH, LINGERING QUESTIONS

The search for McIntire's body began immediately, with Levesque making wide circles around the bell buoy at the Clover's helm. Marine Patrol units and the Coast Guard arrived shortly after, but it wasn't long before the shock for Levesque set in.

"There was no fisherman out there who came to help me. Nobody else was there. I was the one who saw Billy sink and no one else. I'm the one who had to say 'bye' to him and let him go," Levesque said.

"None of this should have happened."

So far, McIntire's family has declined to be interviewed, and the Maine Marine Patrol, which is responsible for investigating McIntire's disappearance, has not responded to multiple requests for comment about Stephanie, what she told investigators that night, or what they believe to be her role in the drowning.

McIntire was only in the water for a few moments -- what could have happened in that time to cause his death?

Did McIntire suffer some other injury -- a heart attack or stroke -- that caused him to lose consciousness?

And why would an adult who could not swim jump into the ocean with a man she had only just met hours before?

Without clear answers or a body to bury, McIntire's family, friends and the wider fishing community are left only with the memories of one man's life and the lingering questions about how it ended, a few hundred yards from shore, in the waters all too familiar to them all. 

Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:

mbyrne@pressherald.com

 

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

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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