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‘You never take the ocean for granted’

Safety was a priority for accomplished Freeport, Maine, sailor John Myers

Dr. John Myers of Freeport, Maine, was an accomplished boater who studied tide charts and currents and summered at Salsbury Cove his entire life. After a perfect sail this fall, however, Myers failed to return home.

Myers, 60, was reported missing late on the afternoon of Oct. 6, after police say he failed to contact some friends he planned to meet for dinner.

The Coast Guard searched for him through the night and, just before 4 a.m. Oct. 7, found his 12-foot aluminum skiff capsized near Bald Rock, south of Hancock Point and three miles east of Salsbury Cove. The Coast Guard reported conditions of 1-foot seas and 11-mph winds during the search.

After a search that lasted nearly two days, Myers’ body was found around 11 a.m. Oct. 8 on the shore of Bar Harbor, Maine, across from Bar Island. Myers was wearing his life jacket.

Myers had left his home there Oct. 6 to sail a 23-foot Alburg sailboat to Hancock (Maine) Marine Services, where he would leave it for the winter.

He called his family to tell them that the final sail of the season had been ‘’perfect and invigorating.’’

He got a mooring at the marina and took his 12-foot motorized skiff, which he had towed behind his sailboat, to the docks. Philip Johnson, owner of Hancock Marine Service, says they talked for about 15 minutes and Myers mentioned he was nervous about heading back.

Johnson says the wind was coming from the Northwest that day. He suspected Myers was nervous about going around Hancock Point, because the winds can be fierce. But a friend of Johnson had told him the wind and waves weren’t too bad.

Later, after hearing about Myers’ death, Johnson also asked himself whether he would have made that trip.

“Like John, I’ve been on boats my whole life and I probably would have gone,” Johnson says. “It’s horrible. It’s a hard thing when you lose someone like that. It’s like losing a family member. I keep thinking what I could have said or done to prevent him from going.”

‘’This is the ultimate tragedy, and the most perfect ending, that I have ever experienced in my life, ‘’ says Myers’ sister-in-law, Elisabeth Houghton of Freeport. ‘’He was the most cautious and sensible person I know. He knew what to do in the water. He never took risks. It doesn’t make sense. We shouldn’t have lost him, but it was the perfect place for him to go.’’

Myers had his U.S. Coast Guard captain’s license. Those who knew him say he always wore his life jacket and took every safety precaution — particularly after two of his sons got caught on a sandbar in the waters off Cape Elizabeth, Maine, in 1989. The tide came in and his son, Jamie, died. His other son survived.

‘’It was horrible,’’ says his sister, Maggy Myers of Radnor, Pa. ‘’John took it hard. It made him incredibly worried about safety, which is what’s so ironic about this. He was a safety nut. Mother Nature can be so cruel.’’

Grace Houghton saw her husband the day before he left for Salsbury Cove. She says she kissed him goodbye, and said, ‘See you later.’ Houghton says her husband would never have taken the trip if he thought the conditions would be dangerous.

The family is waiting for results of Myers’ autopsy. Houghton says her husband had high blood pressure, which he treated for years and had under control. She says he knew what to do in emergencies.

“If he was able, he would have been able to do something,” his wife says. “He would have let the current take him where he needed to go to get to land. He had all this training. He trained and anticipated emergencies. It was part of his thought process.”

Myers was a retired internal medicine doctor but a fisherman at heart, his family says. He fished, lobstered and dove for scallops. Last spring, he bought a 32-foot Bristol named Iris. The boat was about 40 years old and had all the charm and charisma Myers looked for in a sailing vessel. His wife says he had a great season of getting to know her.

“It was temperamental, but he loved that boat,” says Houghton, who was married to Myers for 19 years. “He loved working on the diesel, getting to know it. It was a great joy to him.”

Myers, formerly of Cape Elizabeth, was the second oldest of five children.

Myers graduated from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, then went to the Duke University School of Medicine and graduated in the mid-1970s.

He was a resident at Maine Medical Center in Portland and was recruited by Spurwink Medical Practice, now the Greater Portland Medical Group. Most recently, Myers worked in Bangor at a satellite clinic for the Togus VA Medical Center.

Elisabeth Houghton expressed gratitude to the Maine Marine Patrol, the Coast Guard and others who searched for Myers.

‘’They went great lengths to find John,” she says. ‘’If there’s one message behind all this ... it’s you never take the ocean for granted.’’

— The Bangor Daily News contributed to this report.

This article originally appeared in the New England Home Waters Section of the December 2009 issue.