Good Work, Well Done: Local Hero

When trouble strikes or fish need filleting, it’s a good idea to have Eli Bonnell around.

Mark Lovewell

Martha’s Vineyard breeds legends and fish tales. It’s rarely the current generation that generates the spin passed down on the docks over a thermos of coffee or a cold brew. Every once in a while, however, someone makes a mark early and claims a spot. Take Edgartown fisherman, harbor launch pilot, and Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby fillet master Eli Bonnell. Just thirty years old, Bonnell has already saved two people. Literally. He’s saved lives. 

After graduating from the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School and returning from a trip to Iceland with the men’s hockey league here, he spent several years working on Paul MacDonald’s lobster boat, Shearwater. In the off-season he’d grab a winter job, sometimes here, sometimes someplace else, but he’d always head back to Menemsha when it was time to drop the pots. And then he hit a snag when a snowboarder plowed into him on the Aspen slopes in early 2013, leaving him with broken bones, lacerations, punctures, a head bleed, and a $100,000 medical bill that was reduced by the charitable Christian Hospital to around $40,000. Islanders kicked in with benefit events, and a friend started a GiveForward account, but the monthly rub is still ticking off the twenty-plus-grand that remains.

In the fall of 2013 he saved his first life while on a coffee break from work. He and a couple of other guys were chatting about the upcoming hunting season when their friend Barbara Morgan stopped to say hello, but fell as she turned to walk away and hit her head on the concrete. Everyone panicked, someone called 911, and Bonnell realized she wasn’t breathing and had no pulse. “I just said, ‘I’m going to start CPR,’” he recalled. He did three sets of twenty-five compressions and mouth-to-mouth and brought her back. It was an OMG moment.

Then, as he’s the first to note, life went on. After Bonnell’s accident Ed Jerome, president of the Derby, invited him to join the fish fillet program. Since then he’s spent almost every night of the month-long competition down on the docks, filleting each fish that is weighed in. Some anglers keep their fish, but most of the fillets end up on the plates of elderly Islanders, thanks to a program offered through the Island’s senior centers. Bonnell receives no payment for his work: it is, he said, his “biggest community service. The kids come down, they get their fish weighed, and then they hand it over to me and it’s part of their experience at the Derby. It’s huge.”

“He takes a lot of pride in the role,” said Amy Coffey, who retired last year from managing the weigh-in station. “The best thing about it is that he’s in the public with these knives, which usually makes people uptight, but he’s so funny. He’s literally knee deep in fish guts and laughing and still making perfect fillets. It adds so much to what we do.”

The Edgartown dock is also where a few months ago Bonnell saved his second life. It was July 3 and he was doing his paperwork an hour past the end of his seven-to-one-a.m. launch shift when he heard a cell phone ring. He looked, saw nothing, and returned to his work. 

Suddenly, there was whoosh and “I see this kid flailing in the water and I say, ‘Hey man, you alright?’ But I see him go under, so I ran over and got hold of him by the back of his shirt.” There’s more to the story, but the gist is Bonnell called out to a crowd outside the Atlantic and they helped pull the young man from the water. Again, someone called 911. He was spitting water, showing all the signs of what’s called a dry drowning, when the ambulance arrived.

“Two for two,” is how Edgartown Police Chief Dave Rossi talked about Bonnell’s actions. “Eli grew up with my kids…and sometimes Eli was a handful and I think he’d be the first to admit he was. But he’s really become quite a community member. And honestly, when a car went into the water the other day I looked around because I figured Eli would be there. These are good kids who become useful community members and I love it.”

This year’s Derby may be Bonnell’s final act on the Island. Newly engaged, he’s off to the Pacific Northwest with his fiancée, Julianne Gurnee, who is from Washington. “I’m looking forward to the Derby and saying like, ‘Hey, peace out,’” he said of his impending farewell. “It’s gonna be nice. It just makes it that much more special. That connection with people here makes it stronger.”

And he’s looking forward to sharing some tales, like the time he spent ninety minutes reviving a fish that a young fisherman wanted released after it was weighed in. Make that three lives saved.