Christopher Hutchinson said he had no idea the storm would grow so strong so fast.
It was November 2014, and Hutchinson, 28, had set out in his 45-foot lobster boat, a fiberglass craft called No Limits.
He wanted to check on 15 traps in Eleven Mile Ridge, a popular lobstering area off the coast of Maine. Two crewmen manned the boat with him — Tomas Hammond, 26, and Tyler Sawyer, 15.
They arrived at dawn on a Saturday morning and began pulling up traps, but the weather worsened.
Hutchinson told the Portland Press Herald that he checked the conditions around 10 a.m. and found the wind blowing at a barely manageable 22 knots.
The men called off the expedition and began to head for shore — but it was too late.
“We got hit by one large wave, and that pushed us into another. The windows to the wheelhouse blew out, and we began taking on water quickly,” Hutchinson told the Bangor Daily News.
Court documents say a nearby weather buoy reported winds of 40 knots, and waves 14 feet high.
The large lobster boat flipped. Hammond and Sawyer were nowhere to be found.
“I’m not 100 percent sure what happened next, but the next thing I recall is being in the wheelhouse and the boat is upside down in the water,” Hutchinson told the newspaper.
The captain said he survived by clinging to pipes at the bottom of his boat. When he saw a life raft pop up 15 feet away, he swam to it.
The crewmen, on the other hand, were gone.
“I kept screaming for Tom and Tyler, but I didn’t hear or see them again.”
The Coast Guard found Hutchinson floating in the raft just after 4 p.m. He was alone.
After a search, officials declared Hammond and Sawyer lost at sea.
“I’ve never seen the wind and seas pick up so fast,” Hutchinson told the Press Herald.
But prosecutors say Hutchinson’s story of death and survival omitted important details — ones that point to his guilt.
Hutchinson is charged with two counts of seaman’s manslaughter, a law from the 1800s that applies when a ship officer’s negligence leads to a crewman’s death.
He made his first court appearance Monday and could spend three years in prison for each death. His attorney did not respond to a message from The Washington Post seeking comment.
After Hutchinson was rescued and flown to a hospital, doctors took a sample of his blood, according to an indictment filed last week. They found Oxycodone in his system and THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. Prosecutors say he drank alcohol and consumed the drugs the night before he pulled the boat out of Tenants Harbor for the last time.
Catastrophically, prosecutors say, he also ignored weather warnings.
“Prior to the No Limits departure, the National Weather Service was predicting and warning of adverse and dangerous marine weather and sea conditions in the area,” the indictment says. “Marine weather forecasts, watches and warnings [were] continuously broadcast on radio.”
Prosecutors claim Hutchinson was also negligent in employing a 15-year-old boy, a complicated and sensitive issue among people who make their living catching lobsters.
Commercial lobstering is a lucrative business in Maine — it’s also one of the state’s most dangerous jobs.
Lobstermen caught nearly half a billion dollars worth of lobster last year in Maine, according to the state, which produced 90 percent of the nation’s lobster.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “commercial fishing is one of the most hazardous occupations in the United States with a fatality rate 39 times higher than the national average.”
Lobstermen routinely handle weighted traps that are up to 100 pounds apiece, connected by ropes that whiz across a ship’s deck, pulled by a power hydraulic hauler, said Patrice McCarron, the executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.
“God forbid you get entangled in that rope and go overboard,” she said. “ ‘Man overboard’ is the most dangerous situation for lobstermen.”
For men on the boat, even safety equipment can be hazardous, especially if it gets entangled in a rope or a Lobster trap.
“Many lobstermen will carry a knife in their overalls upside down, so if they fall overboard, you can pull this knife out and cut yourself free,” McCarron said. “But you can bang your head. You can go overboard unconscious.”
And those dangers can be amplified by bad weather and a dynamic sea.
Still, having children and teens on a boat is not uncommon or frowned upon. Children can get sponsored for a student or apprentice license when they are just 8 years old, McCarron said. The apprenticeship programs, which are often used by small family operations, help lobstermen pass on the caveats of a centuries-old tradition.
It’s not unusual to see children and teens working on boats during the summer months or on school vacations to earn extra cash.
McCarron said she didn’t know many of the details of Hutchinson’s incident in November 2014.
“I know that was a loss that hit the industry really, really hard,” she said. “We lost a 15-year-old, and the other crewman had a small child.”
Last year, the families of the dead men settled with Hutchinson and his crew for $310,000, according to the Rockland Courier-Gazette.
The story says the men who died weren’t wearing safety equipment when the wave broke through the wheelhouse window and washed over the deck.