SMITHFIELD — Roland Constable lived to tell his own cautionary tale.

The red flag with a white stripe is intended to save people like Constable’s life, but earlier this month, the required exercise for diver safety nearly backfired.

Roland Constable submerges below the surface of North Pond in Smithfield on June 12. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

He would soon find himself rocketing underwater toward the back of a boat and hitting the propeller.

“I don’t know how I made it,” he said.

Saturday, June 5, 2021, will forever be a date ingrained in the 54-year-old Constable’s mind. Around 1 p.m. that afternoon Constable went for his second-ever scuba dive in Maine. His first Maine dive the week prior was a bit unnerving when Constable surfaced for a break and a fishing boat idled nearby. As soon as the boat drivers saw him, they drove off.

Fast forward a week later, Constable put on his wetsuit, fashioned the oxygen tank around his weighted belt and submerged off the dock at his family’s North Pond camp. With the diver-down flag attached to a buoy via his vest, Constable made his way out approximately 200 yards from his dock.

Constable got certified for scuba diving in March while on vacation visiting a friend in Venice, Florida. He got into it for the invigoration of the exploration, but also to help clean up the lake. North Pond is subject to invasive algal blooms, so Constable brings his “goodie bag,” a red mesh collection bag, with him to pick up golf balls, beer cans and other litter from the lake’s floor.

“Whatever I junk I can pick up out of the lake,” he said.

After 45 minutes sweeping an area of the lake, between 4-8 feet deep, Constable heard an unusual noise.

“I just kind of looked around real quick,” Constable said, “and it was too late.”

Roland Constable scuba dives June 12 as a diver-down flag alerts others of his presence in the shallow Smithfield waters. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

A boat hit him from behind, striking Constable’s silver oxygen tank. The regulator that he uses to breathe broke free and Constable lost control.

His body rocketed toward the back of the boat, which luckily was in idle, and hit the propeller. The American Boating Association reported in 2019 that 20.5% of those struck by a boat propeller died and nearly all sustained injuries.

The propeller went up his right arm, narrowly missing Constable’s face. Two gashes on his shoulder bled immediately, while the battered arm went limp. Struggling to find the button that blows up his safety vest, Constable finally found it. He couldn’t swim, but the people on the boat pulled Constable to safety.

Roland Constable looks at one of the visible wounds on his right shoulder that remains after a boat struck him a week prior, on June 5, while scuba diving on North Pond in Smithfield. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

All diving precautions were taken, so why did the boat approach him?

Constable pointed to the buoy, battered a bit by the propeller, and flag.

“They saw this floating in the water and figured it was somebody’s buoy that got away,” he said. “They had no idea what it was… All of a sudden it was just, pow! The boat ran over me.”

After being brought back to the camp, where his niece and sister-in-law were, Constable went to the emergency room at MaineGeneral Medical Center in Augusta.

Constable says he was lucky to have just gotten two gashes on his right shoulder and left the hospital the same afternoon following a series of tests. The game warden told him he’d responded to three of these types of accidents before and all three resulted in fatalities.

Yet Constable missed just one day of work as a salesman in the service department at Central Maine Toyota.

As Constable works with the boat owner and their insurance company, he said he’s sharing his story to raise awareness. No charges were filed.

That’s not the point, Constable says. It was a mistake, albeit a dangerous one.

“This is my only savior right here from not getting killed,” Constable said, again pointing to the flag and buoy. “I have to rely on this thing, and everybody’s curious what this thing is. People just don’t know.”

Roland Constable scuba dives in shallow water June 12, with diver-down flag and a rope in tow to alert others of his presence in the Smithfield pond. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

According to Maine’s boating laws, a diver-down flag, required by the U.S. Coast Guard, is rectangular red with a white diagonal stripe that can be attached to a watercraft, float or buoy. Boats are required to stay at least 100 feet away from the flags.

Jodie Mosher-Towle, president of the North Pond Association, said the organization has offered a boating safety course for each of the last six years. This year’s was canceled due to lack of signups and the coronavirus pandemic. She believes a higher game warden presence (supplied by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife) on the lake and in the Belgrade Lakes watershed overall, would be effective.

“People who are driving the boat and don’t know that a red buoy means stay 100 feet away means they have not read the safety rules,” Mosher-Towle said. “There needs to be some accountability, and I think (the MDIF&W) could help things out by making sure anyone who is behind the wheel of a boat has some kind of knowledge.

“The North Pond Association is not the law, but we would like to steer you in the direction to abide by it.”

According to MDIF&W, which oversees Maine’s Game Warden Service and is aware of and shared a report of the accident with the Morning Sentinel, the number of boating incidents over the last half-decade have stayed roughly uniform. After 32 incidents in 2015, there was between 43-49 annually for the next five years. That included 44 cumulative fatalities from 2015 to 2020.

In a written response to a set of questions, Col. Dan Scott said warden coverage is a challenge for the organization. Of the 90 available field game warden positions, 12 are vacant. Four cadets are in training, but there are 12 more wardens eligible for retirement and another 10 who will be this coming January.

“During 2020 (the pandemic) boat traffic and was reportedly up significantly on lakes and ponds across the state as was recreational vehicle (ATV use),” Scott said. “From what we have seen so far, I expect that will be the case this summer as well. Couple that with our own staff taking some family vacation time and also participating in required law enforcement training to retain their state law enforcement certification, and summer coverage becomes a challenge.”

Constable can still replay the accident vividly. He feels every rotation of the propeller beating his arm.

While Constable is a bit nervous about continuing to dive, he’ll do so with more caution. Friends or family may accompany him by boat. He never went without someone in the camp, but now Constable will only dive when there’s someone watching.

“I just want to get this word out,” he said. “That’s all I care about.”


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