The lobstering community of Little Cranberry Island received a shock on Monday, December 12, when Jack Merrill's lobster boat went up in flames while he was fishing fifteen miles offshore. Jack and his sternman had to throw themselves into the frigid sea to avoid being burned alive.
Readers of THE SECRET LIFE OF LOBSTERS will know Jack Merrill well -- he is one of the book's main characters. A number of important scenes in the book occurred aboard Jack's boat the Bottom Dollar
. It is sad, and strange, to think that the Bottom Dollar
now rests at the bottom of the sea. But it's a relief that Jack and his sternman Les are safe.
The details of the dramatic fire and rescue were reported today in the local newspaper, the Mount Desert Islander
. The article
A Coast Guard crewman attempts to douse the flames eruptingFAST FIRE SENDS MEN OVERBOARD
from the burning lobster boat Bottom Dollar. Despite the efforts,
Jack Merrill's boat eventually sank in more than 200 feet of water.
Jack and his sternman were forced overboard before being rescued.
(photo: U.S. Coast Guard)
by Craig CrosbyMount Desert Islander
(reproduced with permission)
December 15, 2005
MOUNT DESERT ROCK - Jack Merrill believed he and Bottom Dollar
would fish together for as long as he continued to haul traps.
But under an overcast sky on Monday, between Great Duck Island and Mount Desert Rock, Mr. Merrill watched in stunned horror as the boat that had provided his livelihood for more than 20 years went up in smoke, taking Mr. Merrill's plans along with it.
"I thought it would be the boat I would fish out of the rest of my life," Mr. Merrill said. Now the 54-year-old Mount Desert lobster fishermen is looking to start over.
He is unsure what went wrong, and now that Bottom Dollar
, a 40-foot boat designed by Young Brothers of Corea, is resting at the bottom of the ocean, he is unlikely to ever know. What he is sure of is that he just experienced some of the most frightening minutes of his life.
Mr. Merrill called fisherman Bruce Damon a little before 10 a.m. on Monday to report that his boat was having engine problems and that he was steaming for home. Moments later, while still approximately 15 miles off shore, Mr. Merrill noticed smoke rising from below and went down to investigate. The flames were already licking the underdecking. Mr. Merrill instructed the only other person on the boat, sternman Les Ricker of Mount Desert, to prepare the survival suits as Mr. Merrill emptied two new fire extinguishers, and then water, on the growing flames. Mr. Ricker also filled two lobster traps with buoys, which the men would later use for floatation.
The men had little time in which to work. Roughly 10 minutes elapsed from the time Mr. Merrill first noticed the smoke until he and Mr. Ricker were forced to don their survival suits and jump overboard into the 45-degree water. Worse still, the flames had knocked out Bottom Dollar
's radio, leaving the men helpless to send a mayday alert.
Jack Merrill unloading lobsters
aboard the Bottom Dollar at the
Cranberry Isles Fishermen's Co-op
on Little Cranberry Island,
(photo: Sarah Corson)
"It caught on fire and I tried everything I could to put it out," Mr. Merrill said, sounding almost apologetic for the failure. "It's a pretty shocking thing to have happen."
About a mile and a half away, lobster fisherman Joey Wedge of Tremont and his sternman, Chris Curran of Cranberry Isles, working aboard the 38-foot Austin Marie
, had heard Mr. Merrill's initial radio message about his engine trouble. Moments later the men began to see plumes of smoke and motored over in the Bottom Dollar
"We just saw a lot of smoke and stuff," Mr. Wedge said. "We thought he was having engine trouble. We thought we were going to tow him in. I was pretty scared once we realized he was on fire. You couldn't really see anything because there was so much smoke and stuff. I'd never seen anything like that before and I hope it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience."
Mr. Wedge's boat was the first on the scene and at first he couldn't spot Mr. Merrill or Mr. Ricker, who were on the opposite side of the burning boat.
"Within five minutes of being in the water the Austin Marie
came alongside and pulled us out," Mr. Merrill said. "It was a quick response. I'm thankful for that."
Minutes later the Austin Marie
was joined by nearly a dozen other fishing boats, all ready to lend a hand and make sure their fellow fishermen were safe.
"I want to thank the fleet for responding as quickly as they did," Mr. Merrill said.
At U.S. Coast Guard Station Southwest Harbor, crewmen aboard the fishing vessel Crazy Water
reported Bottom Dollar
's distress at 10:10 a.m. Coast Guard crews launched their 41-foot utility boat, but Mr. Merrill and Mr. Ricker had already been plucked from the water by the time the Coast Guard arrived.
Seaman Christopher Laramee (left)
and Boatswain Todd Chilton spray water
onto the burning Bottom Dollar from
a Coast Guard utility boat Monday about 15
miles southeast of Mount Desert Island.
(photo: U.S. Coast Guard)
"The boat was burning when the 41 got on scene," said Lt. J.G. Gerald Hewes. "The Coast Guard policy, normally, is we don't fight fires except to save life, but we knew the boat had 100 gallons of fuel on board. We tried to extinguish the fire, but the boat wound up sinking."
"[The Coast Guard crews] stayed with me and the boat until it went down," Mr. Merrill said. "They were very helpful."
Lt. Hewes believes the fuel will have a minimal effect. "Right now we're not super concerned about the environmental impact," he said. "It's a fairly small fuel spill."
The Coast Guard crew was forced to abandoned the fire-fighting effort when Bottom Dollar
's emergency flares began exploding, said Southwest Harbor fisherman Glenn Gilley, who, with sternman Zack Damon, arrived on the scene aboard Mr. Gilley's Amy Sui
. Monitoring another radio channel, Southwest Harbor fishermen believed the smoke was from a fire on Mount Desert Rock.
"I didn't go immediately because I knew he had already been picked up," Mr. Gilley said. "When I got there the black smoke had settled down. The whole cabin top was missing. Downwind, the flames had caught the outside of the hull on fire."
Jack Merrill shows his bottom
aboard the Bottom Dollar as he
adjusts safety equipment on the boat's
roof in the summer of 2003.
(photo: Trevor Corson)
Mr. Merrill had fished with Bottom Dollar
since he had her built in 1980. The boat was insured, but that does not alleviate the uncertainty. Mr. Merrill has received calls from people offering boats, but right now he's unsure of his next step.
"I don't know my plans," he said. "I'll be up and fishing sometime soon hopefully. I'll be fine. It will just take awhile to get my head back."
Though Mr. Merrill and Mr. Ricker were in the water for just a few minutes, the outcome could have been much different had the men not been wearing survival suits. Fishermen commonly stow the suits below deck, but if Mr. Merrill had followed that practice he and Mr. Ricker would have gone into the water with just their clothes, unable to reach the suits. Instead, Mr. Merrill kept the suits at the cabin's aft end, on the port side, where they were readily accessible when the flames erupted.
"If I had a message for people, it would be to keep your survival suits in a place they can be readily accessed," Mr. Merrill said.
News of Mr. Merrill's close call rattled the fishing community. Bottom Dollar
is the first boat lost out of Islesford [Little Cranberry Island], from where Mr. Merrill fished, since Roland Sprague and Freddy Fernald died in March roughly 47 years ago.
"It makes everyone a lot more aware of their safety stuff," Mr. Wedge said. "I think Jack and Les handled themselves very well to get in their suits. It definitely makes people think. It's something I'll never forget."