Coast Guard Sector Northern New England issued a request for assistance March 6 after receiving a call from a man claiming to be a fisherman whose boat was sinking five miles north of North Haven. A search of the area was called off at dark that night.

According to a press release issued March 7, “Coast Guard Sector Northern New England received a mayday call from the vessel shortly before noon from an adult male stating his name was Elwood Patton and his vessel was sinking between Vinalhaven and Deer Isle.”

According to Lt. Brian Hollis at Sector Northern New England in Portland, a call came in around midday from a man, saying that he was a fisherman whose vessel was sinking and upside down, and that he was holding onto the hull.

Sector Northern New England issued two calls for assistance, and had received two responses from mariners on the water, Hollis said. The Coast Guard dispatched both fixed-wing and rotor-wing aircraft, and personnel from Station Rockland were on the way to the site of the sinking by 1 p.m., he said.

“The man subsequently reported that his vessel had completely sunk and he was in the water,” the press release said. “Although communications were intermittent for more than 50 minutes, sector watch standers were unable to acquire a vessel description.”

Command Duty Officer Lt. j.g. Laura van der Pol said March 7 that the Coast Guard dispatched a 25-foot response boat from Coast Guard Station Rockland as well as two HH-60 Jayhawk helicopters and a Falcon jet from Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod. A Maine Marine Patrol boat, personnel from the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, and private citizens on two vessels also joined the search, she said.

Searchers did not find signs of anyone in the water, a sunken vessel, debris or any oil or fuel sheens that would indicate the last position of a sunken vessel, the press release said.

A spokesman for Sector Northern New England said March 6 that safety personnel were treating the situation as a real case, although there was suspicion that the call was a hoax.

“Sector Northern New England command center staff searched all Coast Guard information systems for records pertaining to the subject vessel and its owner, but was unable to find any record relating to either the vessel or its owner,” the press release said. “The state and local agencies involved also searched their information systems including the Maine Bureau of Motor Vehicles, but also came up empty handed.”

While the Coast Guard has capability to track the location of incoming calls, van der Pol said the instruments are generally accurate for signals coming from two meters above the water or higher. She said it was not possible to triangulate a signal for the March 6 call.

“It is Coast Guard policy to respond immediately to this type of distress call,” Hollis said. “We ran more than 670 search and rescue cases last year, but this one seems different and has us concerned. We either have a vessel that sank resulting in the loss of its owner, neither of which we were able to find, or we have a hoax case. Neither of these situations is acceptable to the Coast Guard.”

Due to the number of search assets involved during the six-hour search, the press release said, the Coast Guard expended more than 120 personnel hours and $176,000 on this mission.

Those attending the Maine Fishermen’s Forum reported seeing the Coast Guard’s helicopter take off from the Samoset Resort in Rockport.

Fishermen, vendors and others at the forum were checking databases to see if they could find any record of a boat named Steven Bowden or a fisherman named Elwood Patton. Many expressed concern about the cost to taxpayers of a search in the event that the call was a false alarm.

Hoax distress calls placed to the Coast Guard are classified as a felony punishable by up to six years in prison and a fine of $250,000.

“In addition to the prison time and fine, false distress calls made to the Coast Guard needlessly place the lives of our crews and the lives of the boating public in danger and waste hundreds of thousands in tax dollars,” said Capt. James McPherson, the commanding officer of Coast Guard Sector Northern New England.

Van der pol said the case would remain open until a vessel or person involved in the alleged sinking was located, or proof was found that the incident was a hoax.

An audio recording of the original mayday call can be heard at http://cgvi.uscg.mil/media/main.php?g2_itemId=800575. Anyone with information regarding this search and rescue case is encouraged to call Coast Guard Sector Northern New England at 741-5465.