A Dramatic Rescue By Rod and Reel

Some sturdy fishing line and a pair of really strong arms saved two men – a father and his son – from drowning in the opening at Norton Point.

As the summer of 2007 approached, Charlie Blair and his assistants in the Edgartown harbor master’s office looked at the new opening at Norton Point with worry. More than fifty years had passed since a large and enduring inlet had broken through the beach at Norton Point; few Vineyarders or visitors had ever confronted the tides that were now rolling through the cut between the deceptively placid shallows of Katama Bay on one side and the grasping, pounding breakers reaching in from the Atlantic on the other.

With Boston Whalers, sea kayaks, Hobie cats, and body boards easily available to everyone, boaters and swimmers could test themselves against the currents in ways that were nearly unimaginable in the 1950s. And on the Vineyard, there were many thousands more beachgoers than a half century ago. “We were all scared we were going to have loss of life because the currents were so strong,” says Charlie. “And people were just uneducated.”

Last summer, a woman on Chappaquiddick got into a dinghy to catch a small sailboat that had been swept off the beach into the ocean. Somehow she went overboard. Having trained for just this sort of emergency at the opening, rescuers from the harbor master’s office; fire, police, and the sheriff’s departments; and the Trustees of Reservations, which manages the beach, quickly organized a search over water and coastline.

The rescuers found the woman safely ashore, but they also saw two boats out on the Atlantic: Had they missed a second victim? For fifteen minutes, Charlie Blair and others conducted a box-patterned search around the sailboat in a patrol boat. “And of course we couldn’t find anybody,” says Charlie. “And then finally they got her to calm down enough that she gave the story: ‘No, I was alone.’ When that came over the radio, there was this huge relief, I can’t tell you.”

That was a rescue run in the most organized way conceivable. Here’s one from nearly sixty years ago that couldn’t have been more improvised.

On Saturday, August 1, 1953, John Kohler of Hartford was surf-casting at the opening, which a winter storm had carved through Norton Point six months before.

Nearby was Mrs. Hadley Burch of Danbury, Connecticut, who “exploring, ventured into the opening from a sandy point at the westerly side and at once found herself in trouble,”
reported the Vineyard Gazette. “At this spot the racing tide scours the sand and footholds are precarious. The outgoing flow from the bay was too powerful for Mrs. Burch to resist.” She lost her balance, fell, and the tide began to carry her toward the breakers beyond the inlet.

Her husband, Hadley Burch – in his early thirties, standing six feet two inches and weighing two hundred pounds – ran into the opening after her. “More desperate still,” wrote the Gazette, “Mr. Burch lost his bearings in the boiling current, and his father [Lyndon Burch] joined in the rescue effort.” With help from other beachgoers, Lyndon managed to pull his daughter-in-law ashore. But the tide was still carrying his son seaward. Lyndon went back in after him.

“The one rescue had been made,” reported the Gazette, but now “two men, father and son, were in imminent danger of drowning, hardly able to keep themselves alive in the opening and unable to reach the shore. It was at this stage that Mr. Kohler” – the surf fisherman – “was called to exercise his skill.”

“For God’s sake, see if you can heave that line over them,” a beachgoer said to him. Another fisherman at the opening, Andrew Benanchietti, broke the hook from Kohler’s line, “cutting his hand as he did so,” said the Gazette, “and Mr. Kohler made a long cast, his line looping around Lyndon Burch’s throat.” The father managed to unwrap himself and reach his son. The two men were together when the father grasped the lure.

“The playing in of the line then followed, the more perilous because of the heavy build of both men,” reported the paper. “To the son’s 200 pounds were added the father’s 185 pounds, both being of about the same height.

“‘Hurry up, hurry up!’ called Lyndon Burch, as Mr. Kohler manipulated surf pole and line in true bass fisherman fashion.” Bystanders on the beach tried to help, Mrs. Burch said afterward, but she added that it was Kohler, reeling in the two men, who was “something out of this world. I don’t see how anyone could do what he did.”

The younger Burch managed to get out of the water on his own, and Andrew Benanchietti helped the older Burch onto the beach. The Burches ended up with the line used to rescue them as a souvenir.

“The line, Mrs. Burch said, is of nylon and seems to be much used and worn,” reported the paper. “It was of eighty-five test to begin with, and that it held during the rescue is a significant fact. It will now be suitably placed over a mantelpiece in memory of the afternoon at the Katama opening.”