Northshore Harbormasters Association

July 27, 2002

Man drowns diving off Rockport's Whale Cove

Staff writers, Gloucester Daily Times

ROCKPORT -- A Gloucester man diving in rough waters off Whale Cove got separated from his diving partners and drowned yesterday.

James B. Willing, 41, of 14 Twilight Ave., had become snagged in a line about 30 feet from shore, Rockport Co-Harbormaster Rosemary Lesch said.

Willing was diving with his wife and friends shortly after 1 p.m. when one of his fellow divers had an equipment problem and moved toward shore, Rockport Police Chief Tom McCarthy said. The other divers followed.

Willing, an experienced diver, decided to stay in deeper waters, police said.

"He said he was going back out and apparently got tangled up in something," Lesch said.

One of Willing's dive partners called police from a cell phone around 1:15, setting off a search that lasted more than two hours.

Willing's tank had about an hour's worth of air, rescue workers said.

"We did a shoreline search," Lesch said. "We patrolled back and forth with a diver down, looking to find him. He was actually in the breaking surf area, where it was difficult for a boat to go in."

Coast Guard Lt. Michael Bolz said the seas were rough yesterday afternoon. "It was choppy -- there were two-foot seas right inside the cove."

The sea was so choppy, Coast Guard Petty Officer First Class Charles Murray said, that one of Willing's dive partners had to return to shore to add weight to his dive belt.

A Coast Guard rescue helicopter also participated in the search, which ended at about 3:45 when Willing was discovered in 15 feet of water by a pair of snorkelers, McCarthy said.

The snorkelers couldn't get to Willing, McCarthy said, so Rockport Co-Harbormaster Scott Story went in with his scuba gear and pulled the diver aboard the harbor patrol boat.

Rescue workers attempted to revive Willing immediately, but he was later pronounced dead at Addison Gilbert Hospital.

A man answering the door at the Willing home last night said family declined comment.

Whale Cove, on the eastern side of Rockport off Marmion Way, is often frequented by divers, but is "not necessarily the most popular area," Lesch said.

This is the second Rockport drowning in the last six weeks. A Newmarket, N.H., man was swept off rocks by massive waves and killed while fishing in mid-June. The incident occurred off Granite Street, across from the Yankee Clipper Inn.

"Two or three times a season we run into these situations," Lesch said. "Sometimes they have happier endings than this one."

Staff writers David Joyner, Josh Odell, Lisa Arsenault, Gail McCarthy and David Olson contributed to this report

July 29, 2002

Diver 'just ran out of air'

By JOSH ODELL, Gloucester Daily Times

Staff writer

ROCKPORT -- Officials are trying to determine what caused an experienced Gloucester diver to run out of air and drown on Friday afternoon in Whale Cove.

James B. Willing, 41, of 14 Twilight Ave., was initially reported to have been snagged in a line about 30 feet from shore, but Rockport Co-Harbormaster Rosemary Lesch said Saturday that Willing was not found tangled in anything.

"There was seaweed and debris in the surf, and I think people got the idea that he was wrapped up, but he was not," said Lesch. "It appears that he just ran out of air, and there was just a domino effect after that."

Lesch said that when Willing was retrieved, his weight belt had become twisted around so that it was on backwards, and his buoyancy compensator vest was unclipped.

"It seems like he wanted to get out of it," Lesch said. "It's hard to say (what happened); it could have been a combination of many things."

The state Medical Examiner's Office will conduct an autopsy to help determine exactly what caused the incident, Addison Gilbert Hospital representative Cayte Ward said this morning.

Rockport Police Chief Tom McCarthy was on vacation and unavailable over the weekend, but a police representative said that there was no air remaining in Willing's tank when he was found.

A representative from the Rockport Police Department said Saturday that state police detectives assigned to the Essex County District Attorney's office in Salem will conduct an investigation, as they do with similar "unattended" deaths.

Willing was diving with his wife and two friends when equipment problems caused one member of the group to head to shore. When the two others decided to go to shore soon after, Willing elected to stay out on his own.

A Willing family representative who did not want to be identified said yesterday that Willing wanted to continue exploring, and added that he intended to stay close to shore so as not to get separated from the group.

Concerned that Willing was exhausting his air supply, one of his partners called police from a cell phone about 1:15 p.m. Soon the Coast Guard and harbormasters were patrolling the area, which was experiencing choppy seas.

Conditions "weren't ideal," said Lesch, adding that winds were coming from the northeast, which is "bad in Rockport."

Coast Guard Lt. Michael Bolz said Friday that there were two-foot seas inside the cove. The area where rescuers were looking for Willing was also in the breaking surf area, Lesch said.

The search lasted about two hours and ended about 3:45 p.m. when Willing was found in about 15 feet of water by a pair of snorkelers. Rockport Co-Harbormaster Scott Story, who spent the two hours diving to find Willing, retrieved the diver and pulled him aboard the harbor patrol boat.

Rescue workers attempted to revive Willing immediately, but he was later pronounced dead at Addison Gilbert Hospital in Gloucester.

The family representative said yesterday that Willing, who had no children, was very safety conscious and had been diving for 15 years, with many dives in Whale Cove.

The incident, added the family member, occurred just behind the Eden Road summer residence of Willing's parents, who live in Winchester.

Willing recently moved back to the area from Indiana, where he was a commercial airline pilot for four years, to be closer to his family. Aside from his parents, Willing had two sisters and a few nieces and nephews in the area.

A family member described Willing as a wonderful, fun-loving person and a devoted family man, and added that he was a fantastic athlete and an avid sports fan -- particularly of Boston sports teams.

The family representative said that, since Friday, relatives have been coming together to share memories and help each other through the situation.

Miles Schlichte, director of the Cape Ann Dive Team, said that two or three incidents like Friday's typically occur during the course of a year and that this instance "drives home the point of why you don't dive alone."

"He may have just had a small problem, but there was no one there to help him," Schlichte said. "You can have perfectly good equipment and everything, but things happen, and they only have to happen once."

Westford resident Richard Bentley, who spent yesterday afternoon diving off Rockport's Back Beach, also emphasized the importance of having a diving partner and said that someone as experienced as Willing was probably just a victim of uncontrollable circumstances.

"We check everything before we go in, and I'm sure he did, too," said Bentley. "It had to have been a freak thing. It must have been."

But as Natick resident and fellow diver John Holland said, diving in conditions like Friday's puts any diver at risk, regardless of experience.

"If it's too bad out, you just don't go," said Holland, who received his diver's certification on Back Beach eight years ago. "This is just a recreational thing. You don't want to get killed."

In her 10 years working the shores of Rockport, Lesch said that she has seen several examples of divers getting into trouble.

"There are many different types of situations that we see like this -- every year it's something different," she said. "You have to check the weather and know your own skills, and your own limitations."


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