On the Nov. 1, 2022, a unique fishing vessel, the Irene Alton sank in 160 feet of water off the coast of Maine.
In 1976, Bernard Raynes launched the Irene and Alton – named for his parents – in Owls Head, Maine. Raynes, who came from 11 generations of fishermen from Maine and Nova Scotia, had built the 58-foot wooden eastern rig at a time when everyone else was building steel stern trawlers.
Most famous as a swordfish boat, the Irene Alton was generally regarded as the prettiest of the New England harpoon fleet.
Brian Rockett bought the boat in 2010 and converted it to a lobster smack. Rockett had recently acquired a new boat, but intended to keep the Irene Alton working.
“We had plans for her,” he says. “She started to leak last summer, and I wanted to fix her up. I called Lyman Morse Boatyard in Thomaston to get her hauled out. I had just put new fuel tanks in and had done and $80 thousand dollar refit a few years ago. I had put a 9-liter John Deere in her that only had 3,000 hours on it. We bought the wood to repair her stem.”
Rockett reports that he left with the boat, single-handed, from Spruce Head, Maine at 11:50 a.m. on Nov. 1, on a course that would take him around the St. George Peninsula and up the St. George River to the boatyard. “I noticed she was going about 2 knots slower than usual. I checked the engine room, there was water, but it was still under the floorboards, so I wasn’t worried. But then I went forward and checked the fish hold and there was 2 feet of water there and it was flooding in. That was at about 1:30 or 2:00.”
Charlie Weidman, who runs a vessel salvage service in nearby Rockland, picked up a message of the vessel in distress around 3:30 that afternoon. Unfortunately, Weidman was unable to get insurance confirmation for 3 hours.
“Once I found out it was well-insured, I headed down there,” says Weidman. “The Coast Guard was keeping up with it with a 300-gpm pump. But by the time I got there they had quit pumping because they deemed it unsafe. I have a 2,000-gpm pump. I could have dewatered that boat, but it was too late.”
Weidman stayed with the boat until 1 a.m. on Nov. 2. “The bow was still sticking up, but I was alone and there was nothing I could do,” he says.
At daylight, local lobstermen reported a slick about a half a mile from where Weidman left the boat. Dawn Raynes, Bernard’s daughter, cried at the news. “I put every bung in her,” she says, recalling the effort the entire family put into building the Irene and Alton. “I feel like we’ve lost a member of the family.”