Skip to main content

Good Samaritan tow turns tragic

A 25-foot charter fishing boat is swamped and capsizes while under tow in a rough passageway

A 25-foot charter fishing boat is swamped and capsizes while under tow in a rough passageway

A strong nor’easter was predicted for the afternoon of Father’s Day, June 19, on Massachusetts’ Buzzards Bay and the Cape Cod islands, so at about 11 a.m. charter fishing captain Kenneth Murray suggested to his clients that it was time to head back to the dock in Fairhaven, Mass., 17 miles to the northwest.

Hauling anchor near the western tip of Martha’s Vineyard, where the fluke fishing had been good, Murray throttled up the 225-hp outboard on his 25-foot cabin boat and steamed north toward Quicks Hole, a narrow passageway through the island chain that separates Buzzards Bay from Vineyard Sound. About halfway there, the engine made a noise and stopped.

Murray — who has held a “six-pack” Coast Guard charter license, though the Coast Guard couldn’t confirm it was current — radioed two friends on nearby boats for help, then called TowBoatU.S. in New Bedford, Mass. He asked to be met on Buzzards Bay, according to one of his clients. Pulling his BoatU.S. card from his wallet, Murray noted that he had $500 towing coverage, not enough to pay for a tow all the way home, recalls Robert Brunish, one of the four anglers who had chartered the boat that day. So Murray asked a friend to tow his 1988 Steiger Craft, Last Call, through the temperamental Quicks Hole to a rendezvous with the professional towboat.

“Once you go beyond that coverage limit,” Brunish remembers Murray saying, “they charge you an arm and a leg.”

Murray’s decision seems to have cost a lot more. Within an hour, Last Call had capsized in Quicks Hole, throwing Murray, Brunish and three other clients into turbulent rip currents with 6- to 8-foot waves. Minutes later, 55-year-old Murray was dead.

Coast Guard investigators have interviewed the four survivors and are attempting to piece together the cause of the accident. While conditions in Quicks Hole were rough when the 11:43 a.m. mayday call was made — 15- to 20-knot winds from the northeast pushing against a predicted 2.2-knot current from the south — other factors may have contributed to the tragedy, including the use of a short towline and the slow speed of the tow.

The fishing charter wouldn’t have left the dock in Fairhaven had it not been for the Major League Baseball schedule. “The [Philadelphia] Phillies weren’t home that weekend,” explains 48-year-old Brunish, who lives in the Philadelphia suburb of Pottstown and has a Sunday Phillies season ticket. Brunish, who works on the production line of a local medical device manufacturer, had arranged the fishing trip, with two of his friends from work — Joe Mazurek and Paul Helmle — and another fishing buddy, Richard Wezel. They met Murray at Last Call for a 6 a.m. departure. The plan was to go outside the New Bedford hurricane barrier, an arcing stone jetty with a narrow opening across the Acushnet River, and fish for striped bass.

“It wasn’t very good” fishing, Brunish says. After trolling in that area for a while, Murray proposed at 8:15 that they look for fluke near Marker 29, off Martha’s Vineyard, he says. When they arrived, they found the fish biting and the seas calm. While Brunish and his friends worked from the cockpit of Last Call, Murray fished from the bow.

No one objected when Murray, concerned about the predicted winds, suggested that they head back to the Elizabeth Island chain, where Quicks Hole cuts between Nashawena Island to the west and Pasque Island to the east.

Then the engine quit, and Murray made his radio calls, Brunish says. Answering the call was Barry Wilson of Cherry Valley, Mass., owner of Pop’s Toy, a 24-foot 1990 Larson sterndrive cabin boat. Brunish says Wilson produced a towing bridle that attached to cleats on both sides of his boat’s transom and had about 25 feet of tow line to connect to the bow of Last Call. Once hooked up, Pop’s Toy began tugging Last Call toward the southern entrance to Quicks Hole.

At the same time Clint Allen — owner of New Bedford Marine Rescue, the local BoatU.S. towing contractor — had checked Murray’s BoatU.S. membership and found that he had $500 in towing coverage. Allen boarded his boat, a 25-foot Parker with a 350-hp sterndrive, and steered across Buzzards Bay.

Allen recalls that about three years previous Murray had called him for a tow. At the time, Murray had $350 in coverage, and the bill came to $305. Allen says he cautioned Murray at the time that had he been farther away from port, the call could have cost him a few hundred dollars above his insurance coverage. The towboat captain urged Murray to get unlimited towing insurance — a suggestion he made to all his tow customers.

Pop’s Toy entered Quicks Hole to find steep 6- to 8-foot waves in the short passage of about a mile. The channel narrows near the northern end of the passage, and waves can grow as the wind from Buzzards Bay whips in past Lone Rock, to the north. As Pop’s Toy and Last Call closed to within a half-mile of Lone Rock, the waves were actually pushing Murray’s boat from behind. Last Call had a large transom cutout for its big outboard, and a wave suddenly washed over the transom, rushing up to the captain’s chair, Brunish recalls.

Rhonda Allen, a dispatcher in Dartmouth, Mass., for her husband’s TowBoatU.S. operation, heard Murray radio Wilson on the VHF. “Hey, we’re taking on water back here,” she recalls him saying. She heard no response from Wilson.

On board Last Call, Murray scampered into the cabin and threw life jackets out for his passengers, but by the time he returned to the cockpit, another wave had swamped the stern, Brunish says.

Coast Guard Lt. Jon Hellberg, supervisor of Marine Safety Field Office Cape Cod, was investigating the incident. “They were under tow at a slow rate of speed,” he says. “They were taking water on deck. Those types of boats, to shed water from the deck, have to be under way. At the speed they were going they were taking seas, and the boat had a cutout transom for the outboard. The boat swamped from the transom area. All witness reports are the boat went down by the starboard quarter and capsized. At that time the tow was released, and a mayday call was issued.”

Brunish says it was “like water filling a bathtub.” He had one arm into a life jacket when the boat rolled; he found himself in the water with the anchor line wrapped around him. He freed himself and swam to the surface.

“In my own mind, I knew I didn’t have my life preserver on right, and I grabbed the [boat ’s] rail. Kenny [Murray] was to my left. He wormed his way across the bottom” of the overturned boat and lay there, Brunish says. “A big wave came. I was under water, and when I came up I couldn’t see Kenny. I thought he had been rescued.”

As the mayday went out, towboat operator Allen was halfway across Buzzards Bay, headed for Quicks Hole. At first he didn’t realize the boat in distress was his customer. Then his wife, handling the shoreside radio, told him it was Last Call.

“I’ve been there in Quicks Hole in probably slightly worse conditions than that day and had no trouble [with a tow],” Allen says. “Being towed through there is no different than powering through.”

But Allen says he never uses less than 150 feet of tow line “on a good, flat day.” Allen says he carries 300 feet of tow line on his boat, and in rough conditions he would use 200 feet of line or more. “Two hundred and fifty feet of line absorbs shock,” he says. “With 30 feet of line, you are forced through things that you wouldn’t go through [under power].” Moreover, with a short tow line, the towboat can be on the top of a wave while the towed boat is in a trough, leaving the transom susceptible to following seas. With a short line, you have no control of the boat, says Allen. “You have no margin for error,” he says.

With Allen still five miles from the capsized Last Call, the five men in the water had one hope. A short distance to the east, Charles Chaples, 69, and his sons Alfred and Richard, were headed the same direction in their 1984 26-foot Seaway fishing boat, Mary & Phyllis. They could see Pop’s Toy was laboring with its tow, and Chaples steered to his port side.

“The waves were 6 to 8 feet, pretty close together and very erratic,” Chaples says. “Like a washing-machine effect. All different ways. I don’t normally go through there when it’s like that.”

The 60-foot commercial trawler Playtime, skippered by Frank Avila out of South Dartmouth, Mass., had just passed Mary & Phyllis without strain. But Chaples says he was in the process of considering taking a different route through the Hole when he decided to close in on Last Call. “I tried to go fast, but when I did my boat lurched too much. I had to back off.” For four or five minutes, he was “rocking and rolling.” Then, when he was about 50 yards from Last Call, he saw the boat capsize. “I told Richard to go below and get two or three life jackets, and Alfred to tie a rope to the life ring.”

Uptide, Playtime had heard the mayday and Avila had turned his boat across the current in an apparent attempt to block the wind and calm the seas.

As Chaples maneuvered Mary & Phyllis close to the men in the water, his sons heaved the life ring and drew the survivors to their boat. All had life jackets, though some weren’t fastened. They had pulled three men aboard when they began yelling to Brunish to let go of the overturned Last Call and grab the ring. Then they threw it toward him.

Brunish had a sure thing in the overturned boat, and he didn’t want to let go. He knew his life jacket wasn’t secure. A seat cushion he had grabbed early in the ordeal had been swept away. Finally he let go and grabbed the ring, and the 240-pounder was hauled up beside the Mary & Phyllis. Brunish raised a leg in the air, and the Chaples sons grabbed his leg and an arm and hauled him up over the high side of their boat.

The Coast Guard had launched a helicopter and issued an emergency radio broadcast to mariners when it received the mayday, Hellberg says. As the helicopter was getting airborne, the Coast Guard cutter Tybee, patrolling in the area, headed for the scene, and a 21-foot small boat was dispatched from Coast Guard Station Menemsha on Martha’s Vineyard. When they arrived in Quicks Hole 10 minutes later, they found Playtime had pulled Murray from the water, unconscious. Emergency medical technicians from Tybee were shuttled to Playtime. They tried to revive Murray with CPR, and when a helicopter arrived, a rescue swimmer helped hoist the charter captain aloft.

The chopper banked off for Menemsha, but it was too late. Murray had died.