A paraplegic skipper's calm advice and quick distress call is being credited with helping save the lives of all but one of his friends as his pleasure fishing boat took on water in rough seas off Maine.
The 24-foot boat, Job Site 2, was anchored about 5 miles off Kennebunkport for a day of fishing for bluefin tuna on Friday when it began swamping and rolling.
Maine Marine Patrol Sgt. Rob Beal said skipper Nicholas Masi III, of Biddeford, calmly told the three other men on board to put on survival suits and issued a mayday with precise coordinates.
Moments after Masi radioed a distress call, the boat rolled over in 4- to 5-foot seas and 63-degree water, with few other boats nearby.
"If he hadn't kept his head and radioed a distress call, it's hard to say how long all four individuals would have been in the water," Beal said. "You can only speculate from there."
Masi, 45, said he did what he had to do to keep people alive but that he still lost a good friend, Douglas Isenberg, who died at the scene. The two had been close friends since second grade, Masi said.
"I hear they're calling me a hero, but my best friend is gone," he said.
Masi has used a wheelchair since he was paralyzed four years ago in an accident while working as a house builder.
On Friday, he and three friends from Biddeford took his Grady-White boat to a fishing spot where they anchored for a few hours on a beautiful fall day. Around 3 p.m., the wind and seas kicked up, and the boat started taking on water.
The boat's anchor line got tangled in the propeller, and the battery then went dead, preventing Masi from driving the boat to safety, he said.
That's when he instructed the others to put on their survival suits before getting on the radio and transmitting a distress call with his situation and location. Masi didn't have time to put on his survival suit before the boat went under, putting on only a life jacket.
Once the boat rolled over, Masi told his friends to stay together, stay close to the boat and use a cooler to help keep them afloat, said Daricus Hunter, who was on board.
"I'm alive because of one of my best friends," Hunter said.
Besides the Coast Guard, the mayday was heard by people on board a power yacht about 5 miles away. The Lady Erica, built by Sabre Yachts, was on its maiden voyage after launching earlier Friday.
Sabre Yachts CEO Aaron Crawford and his wife were on board with the owners, a man and woman from Maryland, and a fifth person.
They altered course and headed toward the Job Site 2, finding the boat at the coordinates that Masi had given on the mayday, presumably because it was anchored, Crawford said.
When the Lady Erica arrived, two of the men were in the water with Masi, and a fourth was on the hull.
The people on the Lady Erica threw out a line with a buoy to Masi and one of the other men and pulled them on board. When they threw the line back out to Isenberg, Crawford could see he wasn't responsive.
"I yelled to him, but when he didn't respond I dove in," Crawford said.
When he brought Isenberg back to the boat, attempts to resuscitate him were unsuccessful.
Masi said the last thing the 47-year-old Isenberg did was try to push him in the water toward the Lady Erica and safety.
"I heard him saying, `I can't, I can't, I can't, I can't,'" Masi said. "I screamed at him and I said, `Douglas, we're OK. Help is here. Pull yourself together. You're OK.'"
A lobster boat named Miss Konduct plucked the fourth man from the hull as the Coast Guard arrived on the scene. Masi's boat was towed back to shore and is now at his home.
The Maine medical examiner's office has not determined what caused Isenberg's death, but Masi and Hunter said he may have had a heart attack. Isenberg's greatest fear had been that something would happen at sea to put Masi in harm's way, Hunter said.
Isenberg's son, 17-year-old Joseph Isenberg, died three weeks ago of a head injury suffered in a skateboard accident. The teen lived with his mother in Ayer, Mass.