February 13

Maine lobstermen fall overboard more often than people may think

There’s even a course for how a crew can rescue a mate in the water, often pulled in by moving trap lines or ropes like Devin Pesce of Lisbon Falls.

By Scott Dolan sdolan@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

click image to enlarge

Traps and ropes like these are essential gear for a lobsterman but they also pose risks of entanglement. A fisherman, 19, was pulled overboard off Cape Porpoise on Wednesday.

2007 Press Herald file photo

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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.

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