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Stranded on the Coldest Day of the Year | A Cold Day for a Swim

Stranded on the Coldest Day of the Year | A Cold Day for a Swim
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cold day for a swim
Photo/Art by Greg Manchess

They were stranded on a pile of rocks 200 yards from shore. The wind chill was 53 degrees below zero. There was no help in sight. And the tide was rising.

The folks who live around Jonesport and Beals Island, two Maine coast communities that face each other across a narrow sound, would remember January 25, 1991, as the coldest day of the year. The temperature never rose above zero, and the 45-mile-per-hour wind produced a windchill of 53 degrees below. Most of the lobstermen and draggers stayed home. But periwinkles were bringing a good price — 55 cents a pound. So Roger Chandler had borrowed a boat from his mother and told his friend Phil Rossi that he knew of some ledges that hadn’t been overworked. The two men spend most of the year digging worms. But the bloodworm and sandworm markets close each November, sending them out to look for winter work. Both needed money enough to ignore the stinging wind.

The two of them drove an hour up the Maine coast from Ellsworth to Beals Island and into the driveway of a large, empty summer cottage on the water. Roger knew the caretaker wouldn’t mind their using the driveway, and he figured the trees surrounding the cottage would offer some shelter from the wind. They dragged Chandler’s ten-foot skiff down a steep incline into the 29 degree water (salt water has a lower freezing point than fresh water). Phil’s face bloomed into a deep red from the cold, and he had to shout to be heard over the roar of the wind. “Garneys!” Phil bellowed. “We’re a couple of garneys to be workin’ a day like this.” Roger didn’t smile. He’d been called a moneygrubber before.

They set out at low tide, when the ledges, now only 50 yards from shore, were exposed. It was approaching noon. Almost two hours later, having scoured two ledges, they pulled up on a third and agreed it would be the last stop. They had already collected nearly 100 pounds of periwinkles, and the cold had settled in their aching backs and knees. Also, the tide was coming in, and soon the ledges would be underwater.
After climbing onto the ledge, Phil immediately bent to scoop loose shells into his bucket. Roger pulled the boat well out of the water, but didn’t stop to tie it up. Roger grabbed his bucket and went to work. In a few minutes, both men had worked their way out of sight of the boat.

The wind was ferocious. Even in the lee of the tree line, gusts would suddenly howl down on them. Phil was glad when his bucket was filled, and he turned to empty it into the skiff. But the skiff was nowhere to be seen.

“Hey, Roger,” Phil shouted. “What’d you do with the boat?”

Roger stood up, startled. They both saw it at the same moment, about 40 feet away, the wind pushing it out to sea faster than either of them could swim.

Roger’s first thought, absurdly, was that it was his father’s boat. Then the terrible danger of their situation hit him. They were stranded on a small pile of rocks in a frigid wind with a rapidly rising tide. In three hours, the rocks would be submerged. They hadn’t seen another boat all day. He turned to Phil. “We’re dead.”

At 32, Phil was a year older than Roger and felt protective of him. He wasn’t ready to give in to despair. “No,” Phil said. “We’ve got to swim.”

Roger was already shaking his head. He had never learned to move very fast in water or very far. He looked at the shore. As the tide rose, covering the shore, safety was moving farther away every minute. He turned and looked out to sea. The little boat was barely visible in the vapor produced by the collision of the cold water and the much colder air.

In a few minutes it would be out of sight. Staring out to sea, he said again and again, “We’re dead.”

“Forget the boat, Roger. It’s gone.”

“I have to see where it goes.”

Updated Wednesday, January 1st, 2014

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