Rescued at Sea

Rescued at Sea
by Dennis Ahern

This is the story of one of my earliest adventures. At the age of seven I "borrowed" a rowboat and went to sea. I didn't know how to row, but the tide was going out and I went with it. I was eventually picked up by a fishing boat a little after midnight. I was by then a couple of miles off the coast of Rockport, Massachusetts, where my family had a summer cottage on Back Beach.

It was a Sunday evening after supper when I took my drop line and sinker and a bucket of perrywhinkles and went over to Granite Wharf to go fishing. I hadn't told anyone where I was going. In those days, kids pretty much ran wild. I was only seven, but most days I would be out the door in nothing but a bathing suit, and maybe a T-shirt, and be gone most of the day, on the beach, around town, or in the woods that stretched from Granite street behind us to all the way across Cape Ann.

The fish weren't biting and at some point I dropped my drop line in the water, conveniently near where some fishermen's skiffs were tied up at the foot of a ladder. I climbed down into one of the boats from where I could retrieve my drop line and decided that maybe the fishing would be better from the boat than climbing back up onto the wharf. From there it did not take a lot of imagination to decide the fish would be biting more if I rowed out a ways from the wharf. So I got some oars from another boat and untied the one I was in and began to paddle out into the harbor.

It was already starting to get dark and as I drifted out past Rowe Point and Sandy Bay Ledge, I could see the lights and hear the music of the American Legion Post's regular Sunday night band concert at the other end of Back Beach from our house. By the time it got really dark it also grew cold. Then the band concert ended around nine o'clock and the music stopped and the lights went out. It was a clear night and the stars were bright, but I was steadily drifting further from shore. When I didn't turn up after the band concert, my parents became alarmed and reported me missing. The fire alarm whistle blew the signal for volunteers to report to the fire station. Normally this would be for fighting a forest fire or some such disaster, but instead they formed search parties and began to scour the neighborhoods and the trails leading into the woods.

The skiff had a small anchor and I put that over the side, but it only had about ten feet of line and had no effect. I decided to call for help, but precocious lad that I was, I hollered out "S O S" several times. In the meantime, someone reported to the police that their skiff had been stolen. This turned attention seaward and I soon saw fire engines on the high part of Granite Wharf playing their searchlights upon the water. But I was out of range. The Coast Guard was called in and the harbormaster enlisted the aid of all available craft from the fishing fleet and the yacht club.

As it was getting rather cold, I curled up under the stern thwart, which is where I was found by one of the boats in the search party. Newspaper reports say that I was asleep when they found me, but that is not true. I was pretending to be asleep in hopes that they would not spank a sleeping child. I was bundled up in a blanket and carried home. When I came in the front door of the cottage the room was filled with strangers, many in uniforms, police and fire and coast guard. I was given a cup of hot cocoa and put to bed. The next day a neighbor lady gave me a quarter because God saved me. I spent it on penny candy. I never get the spanking I so richly deserved.

Rescued at Sea
Seven-year-old Dennis J. Ahern, son of Mr. and Mrs. Robert J. Ahern of Webster street, Arlington and 54 Beach street, [Rockport, Mass.], blissfully slept through being drifted out to sea in a small skiff late last night. After an extensive land and sea search, with some 100 people and a flotilla of some 20 boats, he was found by Walter F. Church, local fisherman, scouring the waters off Sandy Bar [sic] breakwater at 12:10 o'clock this morning, some three miles from where he had originally embarked. The lad, eager to try night fishing, had found rowing too much for him, and calmly decided to turn in until daylight would in his opinion permit him to find his way back to shore.

Dennis was in the habit of attending the Legion band concerts on Beach street Sunday nights. His parents felt he had gone there when the boy left the house around 7:45 o'clock. However on this night Dennis had other plans in mind, and thought he would try fishing for a change. He is very fond of boating. He went to the Granite company stone wharf off Granite street, and with another boy enjoyed fishing off the rocks for awhile. The other boy left for home shortly afterward and advised Dennis to do likewise. But instead, Dennis took to a small skiff owned by a Mr. McRae, and secured oars and oar-locks from another boat. He also got a life-belt and donned it. He began to row away from the pier to find himself a better fishing spot. It was close to 9 o'clock by this time. Dennis soon realized that rowing any distance was too much for his age. He noticed a sail boat some distance away and shouted for a tow, but apparently the sail boat occupants did not hear him, or else they could not locate the drifting boat. He evidently tried to put out the anchor but there wasn't line enough for it to reach the bottom. Logically enough, he felt his best bet was to go to sleep and wait until daylight when he felt he would be rested and could see where he was heading. Chances are, however, that but for his being found, the boat might well have drifted far out to sea.

Meanwhile, when his parents failed to find him being at the band concert, they became concerned, and started to look for him. They went to the wharf. Then they decided to request further help. They notified police headquarters where Officer John F. Borge, on duty at the desk, at once set the wheels in motion for one of the most elaborate hunts ever instituted here. Ten minutes prior to the Ahern call, a woman reported to police that she had heard cries of a child coming from the water, calling for his mother and father. Officers Leroy C. Silva, Eben R. Hodgkins, and Auxiliary Police Roger L. Eaton and John J. Francis were detailed to investigate. When the call came in from the parents, Officer Hodgkins, Fire Chief Guy A. Thibeault and Dr. Thomas A. Kelley, a friend of the Aherns, enlisted the aid of small boat owners, Richard Gray, George Nelson and Uno Peterson to search the harbor waters. Officer Borge increased the searching fleet by getting four other boat owners, Ralph Nelson, Walter Church, Carl Nelson, and Gene Lesch to do likewise. Straitsmouth station US Coast Guard, notified, immediately started out. Numerous other outboard motor craft joined in the flotilla.

Along the shore, police, firemen, auxiliary police, auxiliary firemen, Coast Guards, and citizens armed with fire department flood lights, covered the shores from Halibut Point around to Land's End in an effort to locate any sign of the boy. Police Chief Richard K. Manson was emphatic in the high praise he paid to Officer Borge for having organized so large and thorough a searching party. It was the motorboat Junee Boy, owned and skippered by Walter Church which found the drifting skiff, at a point some 200 yards northeast of the gas buoy outside Sandy Bay breakwater about midnight. Dennis was lying in the bottom of the boat, sound asleep, while the anchor was dragging over the stern. Aboard the Junee Boy were Auxiliary Policeman Raymond Reed, Fireman Benton C. Story, and also Paul and Jack Kelley, brothers. They picked the boy up from the skiff and into the Junee Boy. The boy even slept through his rescue, so exhausted was he from his nocturnal rowing.

His frantic parents were overjoyed to have the boy returned to them safe and sound. Mr. Ahern repeated over and over again his and his wife's heartfelt thanks for all those who took part in the search and especially to the crew of the Junee Boy. Firemen had been summoned by a bell alarm on the fire system, two blows repeated, calling the crew of the Pigeon Cove chapel. The Pigeon Cove combination kit's lighting equipment did legion work along the shore. It was another instance of the wonderful cooperation of everyone in a small town to turn out anytime of the day or night to help a neighbor or a visitor.
Gloucester Daily Times 20 August 1951

Arlington Boy Found Asleep in Rowboat Drifting Out to Sea
ROCKPORT, Aug. 20 (Monday)—A four-hour search for 8-year-old [sic] Dennis Ahern of Arlington ended at 12:15 this morning when he was found curled up asleep in the bottom of a rowboat drifting out to sea. The fishing boat Junee Boy with a search party of policemen and firemen aboard spotted the tiny craft three miles offshore as it sped seaward with the outgoing tide. Mr. and Mrs. Robert J. Ahern of Webster st., Arlington, reported their son missing about 9 p.m. after searching in vain for him since shortly after supper when he vanished from their Summer home on Beach st.

Their report touched off a search by a 70-man team composed of Coast Guardsmen, police, firemen, auxiliary police and civilians. Young Ahern was wearing a life preserver when he was found. He appeared undisturbed by his adventure. Searchers probed the entire harbor coastal area with giant spotlights in the preliminary stages of the hunt. Then they broke forces and half of them went to sea in a fleet of small craft. A small anchor aboard the rowboat was dragging in the water when the Junee Boy commanded by Walter F. Church hove alongside. Apparently the boy had made an attempt to stop the craft from drifting by tossing the anchor overboard, but the water was too deep for the short anchor line.

The Boston Globe 20 August 1951

ROCKPORT, Mass., Aug. 20—(UP) A missing eight-year-old [sic] Arlington boy was found safe today—sound asleep in a rowboat drifting out to sea. Dennis Ahern had ' been missing for more than four hours when the fishing boat Junee Boy sighted the rowboat about three miles offshore and moving seaward. Dennis was curled up in the bottom of the boat with a life preserver on him. Nearly 70 policemen, firemen and coast guardsmen had taken part in the search for Dennis who vanished from the summer home of his parents.
Bridgeport Post 20 August 1951

Sleepy Boy Goes To Sea
ROCKPORT, Mass., Aug. 20.—A missing 8-year-old [sic] boy was found safe today—sound asleep [sic] in a rowboat drifting out to sea. Dennis Ahearn [sic] of Arlington, Mass., had been missing for more than four hours when a fishing boat sighted the rowboat about three miles offshore and moving seaward. About seventy policemen, firemen and Coast Guardsmen had taken part in the search for Dennis, who vanished from the home of his parents.
New York Times 21 August 1951

Nautical Chart of Sandy Bay, Rockport, MA
Nautical Chart of Sandy Bay, Rockport, MA

The location where I was found was roughly in the top right corner of this chart, near where the two lines intersect at the number 106, which indicates the depth in feet..

Costume Parade on Back Beach, Rockport, circa 1951
Costume Parade on Back Beach, Rockport, circa 1951
Here I am as a pirate in some sort of costume parade on Back Beach across from the bandstand. That's Rowe Point behind my shoulders and Granite Wharf beyond that. Donnie Dolloff, my pal from up in back of us on Granite Street is dressed as a drummer.

Back Beach in Rockport, circa 1951
Back Beach in Rockport, circa 1951
Here's Back Beach looking South. The people walking in the road are about in front of our cottage. Above their heads, among the willow trees at the other end of the beach, is the Legion Hall and bandstand.

The Ahern cottage, circa 1940
The Ahern cottage, circa 1940
L-R: Gramma Ahern, siblings Barbara, Bobby, Charlie, Phil and Claire.

Sandy Bay, Rockport, As It Looks Today
Sandy Bay, Rockport, As It Looks Today
Here is what it looks like now. The red roof in the lower right is where our cottage was. The lower left quadrant was all woods in those days. Now it is all housing developments. Rowe's Point, which was just a hayfield then, is all condos now. Granite Wharf is in the upper middle. Somewhere out beyond the upper right corner is where I was found.

While my first attempt at going to sea was fortunately curtailed, it would not be the last of my nautical adventures. See Down East Adventure for the story of my cruising alone along the coast of Maine in a 12-foot sloop. And at the other end of the scale, see At Sea With Jeanie for the story of my sailing aboard the 123-foot square-rigged Jeannie Johnston, a reproduction of the 19th-century Irish emigrant passenger vessel of the same name.

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