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Chebeague Island mourns victim of boating accident

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Chebeague Island mourns victim of boating accident

CHEBEAGUE ISLAND — The boating death on Sept. 21 of a longtime landscaper on the island has cast a pall over Chebeague, one resident said this week.

David Hill, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, said Charles "Bill" Whetham had lived on the island for "quite a few years" while his children were growing up, and then moved to Brunswick.

But in a way, he never left, Hill said, since Whetham maintained a landscaping business on the island and commuted back and forth between the two towns.

"Taking that little boat back and forth was something that he did all the time," Hill said. "It certainly wasn't a one-shot deal or anything; he was very familiar with that crossing."

Whetham, 63, was operating a 14-foot aluminum skiff and traveling from Chebeague to Cousins Island, according to Sgt. Rob Beal of the Maine Marine Patrol, when the skiff was allegedly struck by a cabin cruiser owned and operated by Richard LeMieux of Scarborough and Foxboro, Mass.

LeMieux, who is vice chairman of the board of the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath, could not be reached for comment.

The crash, reported shortly after 5 p.m., occurred in a narrow channel between Littlejohn and Chebeague islands. Boat traffic typically bottlenecks in that channel, between a red buoy that marks a bar and the Littlejohn Island town dock, Beal said.

The 35.8-foot Searay Sundancer cabin cruiser was traveling southwest behind a U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary boat. The skiff, which was heading west toward the Cousins Island dock, was struck toward the stern on the starboard side, causing that vessel to capsize and sending Whetham into the water, Beal said.

The Coast Guard Auxiliary vessel retrieved Whetham from the water, and LeMieux also responded and tried to provide assistance, according to Marine Patrol Lt. John Cornish.

Whetham received initial medical assistance and then was rushed by a Freeport Rescue ambulance to Maine Medical Center in Portland, where he was pronounced dead at 6:07 p.m.

The sun was low on the western horizon at the time of the crash, which could have obstructed the boaters' vision, Beal said. That possibility and who had the right-of-way are still being investigated.

Whetham was the only person in the skiff; eight people were in LeMieux's vessel. Beal said he was not aware of damage to that vessel, and no one on board was injured. There are no signs that alcohol use was a factor, but investigators took blood samples from both operators.

"It's still very much an investigation ... we're not taking anything for granted here," Cornish said on Monday. "We're still trying to determine the rules of the road, right-of-way. ... We're investigating who may have been at fault here, and we haven't concluded that yet."

A notice on chebeague.org said Whetham had a wife of 43 years, Dianne, and two children, Erin and Hank. An island memorial is being planned, with more information to come, according to the website.

Ed Doughty, who owns the Doughty Island Market on Chebeague, called Whetham a quiet person "with a great sense of humor."

Selectman Donna Damon said Whetham was a jazz musician and played the saxophone, and that his children had moved back to the island. Both she and Hill said Whetham worked hard at his job.

Hill said Whetham used to mow his lawn, and that he had known him for about 20 years. "Hard-working, honest, quiet," he said. "Just a really nice person."

Hill added that "going back and forth, and doing the work that he did, I think he had a work ethic that most of us would admire."

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.