A well-respected Maine fishing boat captain and an experienced crew member died Thursday when their boat sank 50 miles southeast of Portland.

Fisherman Arnold “Joe” Nickerson IV in August 2017. Photo by Amy Paradysz

Arnold “Joe” Nickerson IV, a 60-year-old fisherman from Arundel, and 44-year-old crew member Christopher Pinkham of Boothbay Harbor died when Nickerson’s 42-foot boat sank, according to the Maine Marine Patrol.

The cause of the accident is not yet known, although a fisherman in the area said winds were gusty. A Coast Guard spokesman has warned that the cause may not be known for some time.

The men did not make any radio calls seeking help, suggesting the boat might have capsized or flooded suddenly. The Coast Guard was alerted that something was wrong when it received signals from the boat’s emergency beacon, which activates automatically when a boat capsizes or sinks and sends a location to guide rescuers.

Nickerson was a respected captain and a leader in Maine’s tightknit fishing community, according to fellow fishermen.

“Joe was one of the nicest men you’ll ever meet. He was a gentle giant,” said Randy Cushman of Port Clyde, who arrived at the scene Thursday afternoon and pulled his friend’s body from the water.

Pinkham was remembered as a hardworking fisherman and loving father who leave behind two young children.

“Chris was happiest on the water, he loved sharing his passion for the ocean with his wife (Jessica) and kids out on his boat the F/V Ginger” according to a statement sent to the Press Herald by the Pinkham family.

Chris Pinkham, 44, of Boothbay Harbor is one of two fishermen who died Thursday when their boat sank 50 miles southeast of Portland.  Photo courtesy of the Pinkham family

Nickerson and Pinkham were fishing offshore Thursday in Nickerson’s vessel, the Hayley Ann. While Nickerson fished for lobster nearer the shore during the summer and fall, in the winter he used his boat to drag for scallops or groundfish such as haddock or flounder.

Cushman, who was fishing in the same offshore area, said sea conditions were somewhat rough Thursday morning, with gusty winds and swells five to eight feet high. “It was a sharp blow,” he said.

Just after noon, an emergency distress signal reached the U.S. Coast Guard, which quickly mounted a search and rescue mission that included a plane, two helicopters and a cutter.

Cushman heard Coast Guard chatter on the radio of a vessel in trouble and responded because he was nearby.

A Coast Guard plane arrived first and spotted the sinking vessel and an empty life raft nearby.

About 20 minutes later, a Coast Guard helicopter arrived and dropped a rescue swimmer who confirmed that the life raft was empty and located two men in the water. Neither man was responsive.

Cushman, in his vessel the Ella Christine, arrived shortly after the helicopter and was asked to recover the bodies. Cushman said he recognized Nickerson immediately.

He said he had communicated with Nickerson by radio over the years and met him often in person, beginning about a decade ago when they were part of a group of fishermen who traveled to Newfoundland to research fishing nets.

“We’re a community in ourselves,” Cushman said, before becoming overcome with emotion and ending the phone call.

The Coast Guard posted a message on Twitter at 4:30 p.m. Thursday saying that two people had been recovered from the water, and later confirmed the men had died. The Maine Marine Patrol revealed their names Friday.

By Friday morning, the news had spread throughout the fishing community and the hometowns of the two men.

A friend of Pinkham’s family set up a Go Fund Me page to raise money to cover Pinkham’s end-of-life expenses and help the family – a wife and two daughters – with ongoing expenses. By Friday afternoon, more than $16,000 had been raised toward a $40,000 goal. A page was also set up for Nickerson’s family and had raised more than $10,000 of a $30,000 goal by Friday afternoon.

Commercial fishing is a notoriously dangerous profession, although fatal capsizing and sinkings have become relatively rare in Maine. There are generally three to 10 deaths per year along the entire East Coast as a result of fishing vessels capsizing or sinking, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Staff Writer Matt Byrne contributed to this story.

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