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'So simple, so easy, yet so devastating'

A mother's lament after one of the most common of accidents, falling overboard, takes her son's life

The sea is uncompromising, it is impersonal, and it is blind to a mariner's hard-earned experience. It can exploit the slightest misstep and give it a tragic turn.

Hemingway's Maritime Patriot 23 eventually beached itself on Nantucket with his wife and children aboard.

And so a mother grieves the loss of a son who loved the sea, knew the sea and respected the sea, yet as best as she or anyone else can figure out, died in one of the most common of avoidable boating accidents. Thirty-six-year-old Jonathan Hemingway fell overboard, perhaps while relieving himself over the rail.

Hemingway, who owned a Nantucket, Mass., landscaping company with his wife, Katherine, was alone at the helm of their 23-foot Maritime Patriot, Katie B, while Katherine and the children were asleep below on a berth in the tiny cabin.

"The boat pitched - it lurched a bit. He lost his footing," says his mom, Nancy Rappaport, reconstructing in her mind what likely happened. "That's the conclusion I've come to. It's so simple, so easy to happen, yet so devastating."

It is unlikely she will ever know for sure. The Hemingways were en route from Hyannis, Mass., on Cape Cod to Nantucket, a distance of about 30 miles, the night of March 17. Katherine Hemingway didn't know anything was wrong until 1:18 a.m., when the pilotless center console ran aground on Cliff Beach on Nantucket's north shore.

Investigators analyzed the boat's GPS to try to figure out what happened. Rappaport says nine miles off Nantucket, at about 10:30 p.m., Katie B veered off its heading and began running in progressively smaller circles until grounding on the beach, with the family below.

Those facts are consistent with Hemingway falling overboard and the boat's prop rotation sending it in circles, says Detective Lt. Jerry Adams of the Nantucket Police Department. "The motor went to the right and it circled all the way into the beach," he says. Unless other facts surface, he believes that something happened - what exactly he can't say for sure - nine miles out, Hemingway fell overboard and Katie B made its way, pilotless, to the beach.

A spring-like night

The evening had been clear, with seas 1 to 3 feet and wind about 10 mph, when Hemingway set out from Nantucket to pick up Katherine in Hyannis. She had just attended a two-day seminar on organic gardening in Sturbridge, Mass. He had left his mom a phone message, asking if she could babysit while he picked up Katherine in the boat. By the time she got the message, he already had Madeline, 1, and Elizabeth, 3, bundled up in Katie B's berth under a comforter with a DVD and snacks.

"It was a beautiful night," Rappaport recalls, still chilly at 41 degrees, but on shore, the peepers - tiny frogs - were breaking out in song for the first time after a hard winter. "There was a wonderful feeling that spring was almost here."

Her son asked if she wanted to come. She says it was a bit too cool for her. "He was so much more comfortable on the water than anyplace else," she says. "He lived for it, but he would not have gone out if it wasn't safe. He just wouldn't have."

He knew Nantucket's waters. He had been going out on boats there since he was 3 years old. "He would take the boat out 80 miles sometimes and go tuna fishing," she says. He had made the Hyannis-Nantucket trip many times. Investigators say the route was etched like a highway in the memory of his GPS.

Katherine brought dinner to the boat in Hyannis, along with a 12-pack of beer to take back to the island. They ate on the boat. Each had a beer. Hemingway didn't finish his. Katherine found the can half full the next morning. They left the dock about 9 p.m., Katherine and the girls going below to watch the DVD and then fall asleep.

The wind had begun to raise a little heavier chop, so when Hemingway throttled down and sidled up to the rail to relieve himself, it would have left him more vulnerable to the boat's bobbing, Rappaport says. She thinks he took his hands off the rail, lost his footing and fell into the 38-degree water while the boat continued toward Nantucket.

A 'bump' and a turn

Katherine awoke shortly after 1 a.m. when Katie B grounded, but she wasn't particularly worried. Her confidence that her husband had everything under control, as he always had when they were on the boat, led to some misunderstanding about what had happened and delays in searching for him.

"She feels a bump, then a sharp turn, and the boat begins swaying back and forth," Rappaport says. The engine alarm sounded as the props dug into the sand, but Katherine had heard the sound often enough before when Katie B had gone aground on one of Nantucket's many shoals. Her husband had always simply waded into the water to push the boat off. The girls were asleep and sprawled over Katherine, and she didn't want to wake them, so she let them sleep and fell back asleep herself, confident that the situation was in hand.

"I can understand that because she trusted him completely on that boat," Rappaport says. "I trusted him completely." She wanted to stay with the children and keep them quiet while Hemingway freed the boat.

Katherine awoke again at about 5 a.m. The engine was still running, the alarm sounding. She looked out a port, saw the lights of Nantucket and surmised they were beached on the island. Now she recalculated and figured her husband had gone into town to get their truck so he could pick up her and the children, or was getting help, Rappaport says. Complicating matters, the latch on the companionway door wasn't working properly, so she couldn't easily get out of the cabin without making a lot of noise and waking the kids. She went back to sleep.

Katherine awoke around 7:45 a.m. Now it was light and she began to worry. She broke out the door - it took about 20 minutes, Rappaport says - and called a friend. She called him twice from her cell phone. The second time, he told her Hemingway had just called him and would be back at the boat in a few minutes. Rappaport believes the friend's reassurances were a good-faith effort to encourage Katherine, who was becoming upset.

No trace found

When Hemingway didn't turn up at the boat, police began to search the island. Meanwhile, the friend, worried because Hemingway still was missing, recanted his story about the phone call, Lt. Adams says. At 1:30 p.m., police notified the Coast Guard that the husband and father was missing, possibly lost at sea.

The Coast Guard launched a search with four boats, two cutters, a helicopter and a jet. The search went on for 21 hours, covering 767 square miles from Chatham to Great Neck to Martha's Vineyard, Mass., along the route from Hyannis to Nantucket and on east of Nantucket. There was no sign of Hemingway. A spokeswoman for the Barnstable, Mass., district attorney's office says the disappearance remains under investigation.

In 2008, the Coast Guard reported 157 of 510 drowning deaths on recreational boats were the result of falling overboard. The Coast Guard urges skippers to use a kill-switch lanyard that shuts down the engine if the driver goes overboard.

"I'm stunned. I can't take it in," Rappaport says. "I know the facts. I know they are true. It's just too large for me to comprehend." She says the Nantucket community has rallied around the grieving family, hundreds turning out for a memorial service for her son March 26 at the lighthouse on Nantucket's Brant Point.

"I live on an island," says Rappaport, a behavioral therapist. "For centuries, this has been a women's island, a home of the widowed. Their husbands [many of them whalers] were lost at sea."

And many of their sons, too.

See related stories:

- Safety takes a proactive approach

- Crash highlights perils of night boating

This article originally appeared in the June 2010 issue.