Airboat on the spot to rescue hunter from marsh

By Susan Morse
SEABROOK, NH - Fighting 30 to 40-mile northeast winds and blinding snow, rescue workers aboard an airboat picked a stranded duck hunter from a flooded marsh Christmas night.

Lester Leonard, 39, of Woburn, Mass., waited for help on an island of rocks off Route 286 as rising waters pushed through Blackwater Creek and flooded the marsh, according to Tim McClare of NH Fish and Game.

Leonard was cold and wet, but not suffering from hypothermia, according to Seabrook Deputy Fire Chief Everett Strangman. He required no medical attention. Leonard had walked into the marsh around 11 a.m., McClare said He was hunting alone and carried no flashlight. Leonard was wearing hip waders, a camouflage jacket, at least one other jacket, a hat and hood, said McClare.

A Seabrook police officer spotted Leonard and called for help, McClare said. The call came in at 3:50 p.m., said Seabrook Police Chief Paul Cronin. Rescue workers from Seabrook police, Seabrook and Hampton fire departments, Fish and Game and the Coast Guard arrived at Route 286 near Brownís Lobster Pound, trying to find a way to reach Leonard, who was standing an estimated 300 yards away, according to McClare.

The Fish and Game boat was too far away in Durham to be of any use; Hamptonís rescue boat was out-matched by weather and wind; and the Coast Guard boat could not maneuver from Hampton Harbor into the marsh, according to McClare.

The Amesbury, Mass., Fire Department was called to bring in its airboat at 5:06 p.m., according to Amesbury Lt. James Kukene. The boat has a low draft and can glide over water and snow. "We get calls a lot of time, even by the Coast Guard," Kukene said.

The boat can go into areas with as little as a half-inch of water. Seabrook police illuminated the area with floodlights as Amesbury firefighters David Morse and James Drouin, Seabrook firefighter Paul Kallio and a Seabrook police officer went out to the rock. They were back with Leonard within 23 minutes, Kukene said. "It was quite the thing to be out in the boat, the way the wind was blowing, in white-out conditions," Kukene said.

No charges have been levied against Leonard, Cronin said. He was abiding by all the laws. "What happens is, you go out here and 90 or 100 times, the tide doesnít cover the marsh. When you have a storm system, the winds push the water in and hold the water in." "I donít think he realized the full extent of everything involved because he couldnít see," McClare said. "From his perspective, he was standing on a rock, surrounded by water on all sides, completely pitch black, in driving northeast winds and snow."

It was dark and snowing hard when McClare arrived on the scene at 4:30 p.m. Had Leonard tried to pick his way out of the marsh in the dark and blinding snow he would not have been able to tell where the shallow marsh ended and Blackwater Creek began, McClare said. High tide Wednesday at Hampton Harbor was at 2:19 p.m. The approximately 50-by-100 foot rock island on which Leonard was standing is 10 to 12 feet high and was in no danger of being flooded, McClare said.