A Tale to Tell—Phippsburg’s Eugene Atwood faced three near-death experiences on the water

He’s known around the peninsula below Bath as Captain Bullhead. The stubborn will the nickname implies may have saved his life.

Eugene Atwood holds the sandals he made from a lobster buoy. PHOTO: SCOTT SELL
Eugene Atwood holds the sandals he made from a lobster buoy. PHOTO: SCOTT SELL

He’s known around the peninsula below Bath as Captain Bullhead. The stubborn will the nickname implies may have saved his life. Now 75, Eugene Atwood survived three serious threats to his life, served up by the sea and from trying to wrest a living from it. The last was the most dramatic.

“They always say the third time never fails, but Christ, I think I got by it.”

Was it divine intervention that saved him?

“No, I don’t believe in that stuff. I might as well say that up front. I believe in what I can do.”

I was born in Bath. I was working down on the wharf when I was 14.

The first of it, I fished for lobster, then I got a dragger. I’ve had three draggers. When I had the 55-foot dragger, I’d stay on board one night, something like that.

The first thing that happened, years ago, we dragged up a depth charge. We tied it on the deck, and [people from the Brunswick naval] air base came over and got it, and they said if we’d throwed it overboard it might’ve gone off, ’cause it was all set for a certain depth. They said we were just lucky it didn’t go off. We didn’t know what it was. We tied it off because it was rolling around the deck. It was a great big round one.

After my helper cleaned it off—Chris Wallace—[we saw that] it said “depth charge” right on it. That was the first lucky one.

The next one was, my daughter and I was in the boat that burned. It was around 1977. I think it was a 19- or 20-foot Seaworthy. What happened, the hauling motor was up under a little canvas top and it run out of gas, so I took the can and went up, and when I tipped it up and started filling it, the gas, I guess, went on the manifold or something, and it went off, and I dropped the can, and when I did [the gas] went on me and then it rolled back and went on my daughter. She was out there baiting a trap.

I went right out over the outboard, and she jumped right overboard, too, because the boat went on fire.

The lucky part, the tide was running, and we had oil clothes on and we couldn’t hardly swim. There was a trap buoy got caught on the outboard—the boat was going away from us—so we got ahold of it then, because it stopped. That was the lucky part.

If it hadn’t been for that, we’d [have] probably drowned.

It burned the inside and almost down to the waterline on the other side. It still floated. There was a Mrs. Cushman, I think it was, who owned Burnt Coat Island; they was painting a float and her and a little kid come out and got us. They was watching us. We lucked out pretty good.

And then Albert Wallace picked me up on the float and we went up aboard a dragger and got some fire extinguishers, but we couldn’t even touch it. It was all ablaze. It had two gas tanks under the sides and they was all on fire. We couldn’t put it out. You couldn’t even get close enough, so she just burned.

The third time, it was in the summertime. We were setting traps, it was probably July. It was probably around eight, nine o’clock [in the morning]. It was kind of a pleasure boat, but it was all cut down, and ripped out, like a flat-bottomed skiff. About 16 foot. There was only one seat in it. Carrying 24 traps, something like that, on it.

Something happened up in the bow, ’cause I was going right along, and then I see water come up around my feet, just a little bit at a time. So I slowed her down, and when I did, she tipped right up on the bow. And I think what happened, she must have cracked up in the bow. When I slowed down, then she tipped up. And when she did, she went down like that [gestures], and all the floating rope come up and kind of got ahold of me, and I had fun then [laughs].

I tried to get that off the top of me, it was sawing into my neck and everything else. That was kind of scary, then, but I guess you’re just too busy getting it off you. You’re just trying to survive. The only thing on your mind is getting on top of that water and breathing. I got out of it, come up, gagging, spitting water, all that stuff. All I can remember is bubbles. I was just trying to stay afloat.

Some buoys floated up and I got one, and that helped me float a little bit, and I got another one, and put one under each arm, and it was just like a life preserver. Then my dinner bucket come up. Well, that was already up. It was one of them Igloos. I shook it, and sat it up straight, and kept pushing it ahead of me and swam in towards the island, about a quarter of a mile away. I did [wonder] if there was any sharks; that did cross my mind. It probably does everybody. They’ve seen sharks up in there.

I had a little job getting up on the island, ’cause the breakers were coming in. I went up once, and went back down. Christ, my dinner bucket went right in and set right up. The second time I went up. It was hard on my fingers, though, trying to get ahold of them rocks, and you’d slide down across there.

Then I got up on the rocks, and Granville Wallace was hauling traps. It was foggy—it was right thick—I could just see him. I hollered, but he couldn’t hear me, with the boat running and everything. So I just took off, walking. It’s quite big . . . Big Wood Island. There’s probably three or four houses on it now. There’s one on a cove up on the north end—that’s where I was headed for. They always leave a window or a door open, just for emergencies.

I found a buoy and made me a pair of shoes. I took my jackknife out and split the trap buoy. Then I cut the bottom of my pants off and [used strips of cloth to make] little sandals, ’cause there was all rocks going up across there. There was kind of a high cliff, then it was all bushes, and then it went up into the trees and woods. But I stayed down on the edge and went along the rocks.

And when I got up to the cottage, I went around and checked the doors and everything and then on the back side, and they left a window unlocked. So I went in and got me a pair of [real] sandals, flashlight, and got me some bug spray . . . everything I needed. It was getting late then. I was on the island all day. It took a long time to climb them rocks. There was a lot of big rocks, cliffs. I had to go down on my knees and climb. I couldn’t go very fast.

I had my dinner bucket with me. I took it right with me. All the food and stuff was there.

Keith Wallace was out hunting for me. He was in his big boat, and he come around the shore, and I kept flashing my light and he come in as close as he could. And he went clear home, and got his skiff and come back in. Then he rowed in and got me. It must have been 8:30 p.m.

Larry and all them guys was on the shore, to see if I was getting in okay. I was barefoot then. I had to take my shoes off.

My skiff and outboard, nobody ever got it. I don’t know why. I set traps right on top of where I was. I guess somebody probably got it and didn’t say nothing.

It worked out good [laughs]. Christ, it was just another day. I thought about it [later], but it was nothing to worry you. Just another day, I guess. If you were to have panicked, why, then, Christ, you’d probably have killed yourself.

You know, there’s some people get drowned and some people come out of it. But that’s something they learn when they’re doing it, I guess. I don’t think it’s anything you can prevent. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. That’s why they call it an “accident.”

If I’d known that boat had a crack in it, I wouldn’t have gone out in it. I would have fixed it.

Big Wood Island: PHOTO: SCOTT SELL
Big Wood Island: PHOTO: SCOTT SELL