PROVINCETOWN — Even at the age of 69, Captain Jean Frottier never considered coming permanently ashore.
The sea was his lifelong passion — the physical challenge, the vastness, the quiet.
This fisherman, retire? Unthinkable.
“The sea is a hard thing — something about the water, it just gets in your blood,” said Jack Clark, a fellow fisherman and friend of Frottier’s. “And once it’s in your blood, you can’t get far from it.”
Frottier, a lifelong fisherman known across Provincetown, is presumed dead after his vessel, the Twin Lights, capsized Sunday, 2.5 miles off the coast of Race Point. His body has not been recovered.
Frottier’s friends and fellow fishermen, many of whom have spent much of their lives at MacMillan Pier by his side, said they are devastated by the loss of a man who served as an emblem for so much of what is special about their lifestyle.
“If anybody could have gotten out of that boat,” said Vaughn Cabral, captain of the Cee-Jay fishing boat, “it would have been Jean Frottier.”
Coast Guard officials said they are still investigating the circumstances that led to the capsizing of Frottier’s craft. At the dock where his 42-foot scalloping boat was once moored, friends said they all knew the general timeline: On a clear Sunday morning, just off the northwest tip of Provincetown, Frottier’s scallop dredge got caught in a line of lobster traps. The weight of the stuck dredge tugged at the boat, causing it to capsize.
When a nearby fishing vessel raced to the scene, Frottier’s mate, the only other person on the vessel, was clinging to the boat’s hull. As the boat began to submerge, Frottier was nowhere to be seen.
Chief John Harker, the US Coast Guard officer in charge of the Provincetown station, said that in the dozen hours after the accident, Coast Guard and Massachusetts State Police rescue teams searched for miles around the spot of the capsizing without finding Frottier. Harker said officials are nearly certain the captain was trapped inside.
The boat lies more than 200 feet below the surface, Harker said. It would be impossible for the state’s dive team to reach that depth. Instead, authorities have used side-scan sonar to identify the vessel’s location on the ocean floor. Next, Harker said, a remotely operated submarine, affixed with mechanical arms and a camera, will probably be used to assess the best way to free the boat from the sea floor.
Frottier was known to use all prescribed safety gear, Harker said. The US Coast Guard has kept in regular contact with Frottier’s family; he lived with his wife and teenage daughter at their Wellfleet home.
“They’re very upset,” Harker said, “but they’re a very strong family.”
Along MacMillan Pier, fishermen, members of a community that remains closely knit even as its ranks dwindle, lowered flags on their vessels. But they largely refrained from the could-haves and should-haves of the accident.
Every time each of them leaves the dock, they agreed, they weigh the risks. Frottier, they concluded, was simply unlucky.
“People don’t realize it,” Cabral said. “The sea is unforgiving.”
Tall, lanky, and spry with natural athletic abilities and a face that resembled Hugh Hefner’s — though the captain was considerably more upstanding — Frottier drew envy for his expertise in all manner of fishing: While he worked primarily as a scalloper, he spent decades skin-diving for lobster and won awards for his tuna catches.
“He’d drive you crazy,” joked Clark, whose boat sat in the spot next to Frottier’s. “He was one of those guys who knew everything — but he really did know everything.”
“The guy used to swim 20 miles a day,” Captain Shawn Arsenault said. He recalled watching Frottier head out to sea Sunday morning against the bright blue sky.
Friends often poked fun at Frottier’s chatterbox tendencies. He knew most every face on the pier, of course, but could just as easily hobnob with big shots in government fisheries agencies or regulars at the hotel and club that he owned decades ago in downtown Provincetown.
“He could talk a dog off of a meat wagon,” Cabral said.
In recent years, Frottier had begun to slow down a little, friends said. Spending time with his daughter was a priority, they said, and multiple brushes with the bends during skin-diving excursions left him troubled by back pain.
Before Frottier had to quit, he and Clark would dive for lobsters together — pleasurable at the height of summer when lobsters are plenty; tough, scary work in stormy seas when the catch is scarce.
But when it came to facing the ferocity of the ocean, Frottier never displayed fear.
“I’ll be honest — sometimes it’s black, swirling death down there,” Clark said. “But on those dark, cold, miserable days when there’s no sunlight, Jean would just dive right through.”