Guest contributor: Crash Barry
categories: Cocktail Hour
In the summer of 2009, Matinicus made national headlines after one lobsterman shot another in the neck during a trap war. The shooter, Vance Bunker, was ultimately found not guilty. Rightly so, because Vance, frustrated by harassment and threats from longtime enemies of his family, merely defended himself against a couple of scumbuckets. And the shooting wasn’t the first time he acted like a hero.
From my perspective as a sternman, Vance Bunker was an awesome guy. A gentle, funny giant. An island Renaissance Man. He was old enough to remember hauling spruce traps, but young and intelligent enough to embrace modern improvements. Smart about the ocean, he drove a boat like it was an extension of his body. And he could fly. On several occasions he gave me a lift to the mainland in his tiny plane. He was kind and generous, tough and strong – his hands as big as heads, his arms mighty muscles developed during a lifetime of hard labor, working the waters off Maine’s most remote island.
January 16, 1992 was a frigid night. The outer reaches of Penobscot Bay swirled. The sea smoke was thicker than fog. Screeching winds gusted over 30 knots. Four-to-eight footers of North Atlantic chop. That’s the weather the tugboat Harkness was trudging through when she started taking on water. Lots of water. The crew believed they were doomed. The sea was so rough, no fishermen would be out. They were too far from shore for the Coasties to help. They gave their position, via Loran numbers, over the radio. MAYDAY! MAYDAY! They were going down.
A voice on the radio urged them to head for Matinicus. The crew had seen the island on the chart and assumed it was uninhabited. Not so, the radio voice said. “Steam for Matinicus, it’s your only chance.”
On the island, people sprung to action. Vance, along with Captain Rick Kohls and island handyman Paul Murray, climbed aboard Vance’s lobster boat, the Jan-Ellen, and headed toward the tug’s last known position. The plan: Lead the Harkness safely into the harbor and lean her against the Steamboat Wharf. The rest of us would bring the dewatering pumps on the fire engine.
The fire truck wouldn’t start, but it didn’t matter. No pumps could beat that winter night’s watery wrath. Out at sea, the tug’s stern went awash. The three-man crew abandoned ship as she went down, deep into the North Atlantic. Gone forever.
Meanwhile, Vance and his crew battled the freezing spray and waves. The Jan-Ellen was icing up. Couldn’t see through the windshield. Nothing on radar anywhere near the last known position. They wouldn’t spot the tug, since Davy Jones had already taken her. These three island men, however, were hardy and determined. Engulfed in sea smoke, there was no sky. They stared into the churning gray-and-black froth all around them. Searching. Seeking.
The men in the water? Bobbing. Bone-chilling waves broke and tossed them. Were they praying? Crying? Each man knew his end was near, in minutes or even less. Did panic set in? Or sorrow? Hypothermia follows. Drifting. Drifting toward unconsciousness. Cold. So very cold. They must have known death would soon arrive.
But a miracle happened. One of the tug’s crew had grabbed a waterproof flashlight (a Christmas present from his daughter) before abandoning ship. His right hand was seized up and clenched tight around the gift. His frozen claw glowed into the dark night.
The men aboard the Jan-Ellen saw the light. In the middle of the savage sea, they pulled the sailor aboard. And then, wondrously, they spotted and snatched the two other men from the Reaper’s grip.
Vance turned toward the island. His crew tore the wet clothing from the survivors and gave them semi-dry gloves, hats, and the coats off their own backs. When the Jan-Ellen arrived at the Steamboat Wharf, the Matinicus men stood in t-shirts and trousers, half-frozen. But not as cold as the crew of the Harkness.
I know, firsthand, how cold the rescued men were. As one of three sternmen standing on the wharf, I was chosen as a warm body and found myself in the back of someone’s truck, sharing a sleeping bag with a fella just plucked from the sea. Stripped of his soaked loaner coat and hat, his bare body was ice. I wrapped my arms around him and snuggled the shivering, chattering, nearly naked man. I remember his tighty-whities, wet against my pants. I shared my heat, across the island, until we got him inside Vance and Sari’s house, where there was a warm fire and a huge pot of lobster stew. And biscuits.
My memory of the celebration will be foggy forever because I got drunk. Real drunk. It was like a good Christmas party. Lots of joy and love for those around you. Vance making wisecracks. People laughing. The three strangers he saved sat at his table. Blankets around their shoulders. Hair still wet and salty from the sea. In shock. Slowly, hesitantly, they start to eat the best stew in the world. And biscuits. Not believing they’re alive. Wondering, for a second, if they’re in heaven.
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Tomorrow, Crash Barry starts filming the movie version of his novel Sex, Drugs and Blueberries. His column One Maniac’s Meat appears monthly in The Bollard, and details his exploits as a sailor in the U.S. Coast Guard fighting the “War on Drugs” and the “War on Haitian Refugees.” Sex, Drugs and Blueberries and the complete version of Tough Island are available at Maine bookstores and libraries or via crashbarry.com or on Amazon. His latest book Marijuana Valley, Maine: A True Story will be published this fall. He can be reached via crashbarry.com.