Maine’s top elected Republican, a lobsterman, survived a boat capsize from a giant wave before Lee
Like most lobstermen, Maine’s House Republican leader scrambled to complete his work ahead of the remnants of Hurricane Lee. Rep. Billy Bob Folkingham was returning home from the sea when, seemingly out of nowhere, a giant wave rose and towered over his boat.
Moments later, he and fellow fishermen Alex Polk found themselves adrift in the cold North Atlantic as they witnessed a terrifying sight: the sturdy, 40-foot (12-meter) vessel designed for offshore fishing capsized, its propeller still rotating and its diesel running. The engine belches black smoke.
“This boat turned upside down in a nanosecond like a bathtub toy,” Folkingham recounted.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the US Coast Guard had warned sailors on Friday afternoon that they needed to immediately start making plans to avoid the torrential storm – as Folkingham headed home to Winter Harbor, a few miles (kilometres) east of Mount Desert Island and National Park. Acadia National.
Folkingham suffered a black eye, a facial fracture and a sewn lip, and counted Polk and himself lucky to be alive Monday. Polk broke one arm and the wrist of his other arm and suffered a large cut to his face, Folkingham said.
Their ordeal unfolded Friday afternoon as the waters in the Gulf of Maine were already beginning to become turbulent. But it wasn’t harsh enough to keep the lobsters from finishing their work.
Despite choppy waves of 5 to 8 feet (1.5 to 2 meters) offshore, the seats were relatively calm, Faulkingham said. The two were watching the waves crash onto the shore on one of the islands and were about to head toward the port when a large wave appeared.
Folkingham estimated that the height of the bulge may have been 40 feet (12 m). He only had one second to react, so he pressed the accelerator.
“It was surreal to see a wall of water coming at you like that. It’s not normal to see water coming at you sideways. It was above us. I don’t know how high it was overall. But it was above us,” he said.
The next thing he knew, he was swimming away from the boat. Polk swallowed some air inside the upturned ship, pushed it off with his good arm and emerged on the other side, Folkingham said.
The boat’s engine was somehow still running, black smoke belching and the propeller turning.
Folkingham climbed onto a flat part of the stern of the overturned boat and grabbed Polk with his good arm to help him to safety as well. That’s when Folkingham realized the force of the wave had pulled his shorts and sweatpants down to his ankles. Use sweatpants to stop bleeding from your urine head.
They took off their oilskins and boots and waited for help. Folkingham’s phone was gone. Folkingham tied his oilskins, the waterproof equipment worn by fishermen at sea, in such a way that they could be used for flotation in emergency situations. They pinned their hopes on being spotted or alerting the Coast Guard through an emergency locator beacon, which is activated by exposure to water.
Several planes flew overhead and several lobster boats passed in the distance, but no one saw them. Meanwhile, the Coast Guard responded to the lighthouse, notifying Folkingham’s wife at 12:20 p.m. and the search was continuing.
Although Polk was seriously injured, he was safe and felt God was watching as the remains of debris and flotsam were pushed from his boat onto shore, Folkingham said. But his boat remained in place and did not sink immediately. In fact, the sun beating down on the black hull warmed up, providing the men some relief from the cold ocean waters.
“I knew it was bad but I had no fear. I can’t explain the science of adrenaline or any of that other stuff. All I know is it was God’s presence.”
Their savior was a familiar fisherman. His cousin, Mickey Faulkingham, was the first to find them at 1:11 p.m., transferring them to his lobster boat and rushing to shore, where an ambulance took them to the hospital.
Their boat sank.
Their ordeal began when the Coast Guard was asking sailors to accelerate final preparations for Hurricane Lee, which remains a Category 1 hurricane more than 400 miles (640 kilometers) to the south. The National Weather Service sent out a warning that included a call to action, alerting mariners in bold letters that they “should implement avoidance plans now.”
Some, like Folkingham, were just finishing their lobster portion. Others would pull the traps out of the water, or take them to safer waters offshore.
Officer Deolanda Caballero said the Coast Guard cannot prevent sailors from going out in severe weather, but they did their best to provide them with information to take the storm seriously.
“We’ve put these tips in place to make sure people are safe and doing their best. We’ve said many times that the ocean is unforgiving. We can’t really stop people from going out — it’s ultimately at their own risk,” Caballero said.
Folkingham, 44, is on leave from the Maine Legislature part-time until it begins its next session early next year. He was elected to the Legislature in 2018 and has worked as a lobster fisherman all his life.
He said Monday that he felt like he had been run over by a truck. However, close contact will not prevent him from returning to the sea.
“Fishing is who I am. This is what I do. It’s my livelihood. This is how I feed my family. This is what I love,” he said.