PROVIDENCE — Nathan Carman and his mother were trolling for fish about 100 miles offshore in September 2016 when his boat’s engine made a strange noise, Carman testified in federal court Thursday. He lifted a hatch, saw water filling the boat just below deck, and asked his mother to reel in their lines while he grabbed safety gear.
Carman said he managed to make it safely to a life raft, which had automatically deployed, with a bag of dry clothes and enough food for weeks. But he never saw his mother, Linda, who is presumed dead.
“I did not hear her scream,” said Carman, 25, taking the stand on the sixth day of a civil trial over his $85,000 insurance claim for the loss of his boat, the 31-foot Chicken Pox. “I don’t think there would have been time to compose a sentence.”
The deck “started to feel spongy,” Carman testified, and then “the boat just dropped out,” leaving him alone in the water. He said his mother never said a word as the vessel sank and he didn’t see her disappear into the sea.
“Was your mother even on board?” asked David Farrell, a lawyer who represents the insurers and challenged Carman’s account.
“I’ve told you yes she was on board and I asked her to reel in the lines, which she did,” he replied.
Dressed in a gray suit, white shirt, and blue striped tie, Carman answered questions calmly during five hours on the stand but looked visibly uncomfortable as Farrell pressed him about his mother’s final moments.
Carman said his mother never asked him what was wrong as he gathered the safety gear at the bow of the boat and didn’t know if she knew the bilge pump had flooded.
“You didn’t hand her a life jacket?” Farrell asked.
“Nor did I put one on myself,” Carman said.
Carman, who is under investigation for the death of his mother and the fatal shooting of his grandfather in 2013, is scheduled to resume testimony on Friday. In court filings, the insurers alleged that Carman deliberately sabotaged the boat to kill his mother and previously killed his grandfather as part of a plot to collect a multimillion-dollar inheritance.
Judge John J. McConnell Jr., who is presiding over the bench trial, denied the companies’ request to present evidence related to the slaying of Carman’s grandfather, John Chakalos, a wealthy real estate developer who left a $44 million estate to his four daughters, including Carman’s mother.
Chakalos, 87, was shot to death in his Windsor, Conn., home in December 2013. Carman hasn’t been charged criminally in either case and has adamantly denied wrongdoing.
Carman said the sinking was an accident, but the National Liability & Fire Insurance Co. and Boat Owners Association of the United States sued him, alleging he made suspicious alterations to the boat that caused it to sink.
On Thursday, Carman acknowledged that he removed trim tabs from the rear of the boat hours before he and his mother left Point Judith, R.I., around 11 p.m. on a fishing trip. He said the removal left four holes, each about half the size of a silver dollar, which he filled with putty.
Carman denied drilling holes in the boat to remove the trim tabs, although he said he may have used a saw or drill while making the modification.
“Let me be clear: I did not bore a hole in my boat, period,” Carman said.
He said he removed the trim tabs, which had been installed by the boat’s previous owner, because he thought they were causing the vessel to drag.
“Removing the trim tabs was something I planned to do,” Carman said. “It was a way to fill my free day” before the trip.
Carman testified that he and his mother fished in an area near Block Island, then traveled some 80 miles to an area off Long Island known as Block Canyon, where the boat sank. A week later, he was rescued by a passing freighter about 115 miles off Martha’s Vineyard.
Pressed on how he could have ended up there, based on drift currents, Carman said he didn’t know precisely where the boat sank.
Lawyers for the insurers asked Carman why he didn’t trigger an emergency beacon that would have alerted the Coast Guard and broadcast his location. Carman said he didn’t realize the boat was going to sink until it was too late.
“I actually have a very strong aversion to pressing a button that is going to result in a helicopter coming out,” he said. He said he knew it was “highly unusual” for the boat to be taking on so much water but still thought he could fix the problem himself.
Farrell, the insurance lawyer, noted that Carman didn’t hesitate to radio the Coast Guard in April 2016 when his boat engine overheated near land. Carman said he called for a tow because he was about to run aground on a jetty just outside the Point Judith harbor.
After that incident, the insurance company paid him $33,000 to replace the engine. Six months later, the boat sank.
Carman testified that he had packed enough food to last two people for two weeks, and had a bag of dry clothes. As he floated in the raft waiting to be rescued he “was cold, but I wasn’t hypothermic,” he said.
He said he had worried about being stranded at sea after reading “In The Heart of the Sea,” a book about the sinking of a whaling ship in 1820 that left the crew stranded.