HARPSWELL, Maine — Philip Tuttle saw an opportunity and took it. With his wife preoccupied upstairs, he quickly scribbled a note — “Headed out to look for a trap. Be back shortly.” — and headed toward his boat Saturday afternoon.
Tuttle has hauled lobsters from the waters of Casco Bay for about 40 years. And he found the trap, but got a little too close to shore in the process. He hit a ledge, and the Queen Tut, his 26-foot lobster boat, began sinking.
“The boat just went right over on its side,” he said. “Within three minutes, it was sunk.”
Unable to reach a life jacket, Tuttle took a deep breath as the boat went down, pried loose a nearby buoy, and swam 30 yards, though it felt more like 2 miles, through chilly water to an island. Slowly, he clawed his way up the jagged rocks, barnacles slicing into his shins and arms with each movement.
Numb, tired, bleeding, he waited to be rescued. For nearly an hour, he lay on the rocky beach. Surviving was a remarkable feat for most anyone, but an astounding feat for this lobsterman.
Philip Tuttle is 90 years old.
He’s not supposed to lobster alone anymore. But Tuttle, a feisty and spry retired casket salesman who spends about three months a year lobstering, is not one easily told what to do. On Saturday, he sneaked out of the house.
“I get the Dickens for that,” he said with an impish grin Wednesday, sitting beneath a picture window overlooking the ocean.
Jackie Tuttle, his wife of nearly 50 years, found the note about 5 p.m., when she went downstairs. Their son, Brooks, and his girlfriend were coming over for dinner, so she ducked outside to check quickly and make sure the boat was actually gone. It was.
She began to wait. The table was set, and supper was keeping warm on the stove.
About 6:20 p.m. Saturday, the house phone rang. It was Brooks, the youngest of nine children, saying he was running late. That’s when Jackie Tuttle told Brooks that his father had taken the boat out but had not returned.
She was worried.
Ten minutes later, the son pulled up to his parents’ gray saltbox home, walked to the dock, hopped in a skiff, and immediately set out in search of his father’s boat. He scanned the sea for 40 minutes, looking for the blue and white boat. It was under water. Only the muffler, about the size of a forearm, poked above the surface.
Brooks never saw his Dad because he was focused on finding a boat with his father aboard. “He was almost right under our nose,” the son said.
With only 90 minutes of daylight left, he dialed his mom and told her to call for help.
She called 911, along with another son, Stewart, and a son-in-law.
Stewart walked to the end of Long Point, where his father lives, and saw the muffler sticking out of the water. “I said to myself, ‘At least he was doing what he wanted to do,’ ” he recalled.
He saw something lying on the rocks and thought it was a seal. Then, he realized it was his father and panicked. “I knew we had to get to him, but I didn’t know how we could,” Tuttle’s son said.
Stewart Tuttle and his brother-in-law “started running toward the first boat I could find,” he said. They got in, motored as fast as they could, and reached Philip. They got him on board the boat. An ambulance waiting at the dock took him to Parkview Adventist Medical Center, where he fussed enough that they let him go home that night after a battery of tests showed that, although bruised, he was OK.
“I’m still here; It wasn’t my time to go yet,” Philip Tuttle said, smiling wryly, his legs heavily bandaged. “I decided I was going to live a little longer.”
And do some more lobstering?
“Oh, God, yes!” he said, his voice gravelly. “As soon as they get the boat up and running.”
Mementos of Philip Tuttle’s love of lobstering — and of his age — abound in the gray saltbox house. Behind his chair sits a framed picture of a smiling Tuttle, holding a lobster in each hand. Messages wishing him a joyous 90th birthday are written on the matting.
He was born and raised in Wakefield, Mass., until business brought him to Maine in the late 1950s or early '60s.
His sons had the Queen Tut floated back to the family’s dock and the engine working within 48 hours of the accident, but the boat still needs a bit of work.
Stewart Tuttle spent part of Wednesday morning flushing the hydraulic system. And the electronics, the GPS, radios, and radar need to be replaced. The old, waterlogged gadgets now sit kaput on a bench near the family’s dock, not far from a few stray lobster traps.
The bulk of his traps are waiting to be hauled in from the bottom of the sea, put there last week before Saturday’s commotion.
“Gotta change the bait,” he explained.
And this time, Philip Tuttle promised, he won’t go out alone.