The Deliverance of Rev. Woehr
By John Ford

Glancing back into the diaries, I ran across another hair-raising experience, when I received a phone call early in the morning of Oct. 16, 1981, from a member of the Unity Fire Department. He was rather disgustedly inquiring if I planned on coming to the search on Unity Pond before too long?

“What search?” I blankly asked, completely unaware of any such thing going on in the area. I'd been on a couple of days off and away from home so I wasn't aware of any searches in my area.

“You didn't know,” he asked, sounding rather surprised.

“We have a missing boater on Unity Pond. The call came in late last night and you were on a day off. Another warden came to assist us, but he left after only a couple of hours.”

“He said you'd be coming on in the morning, and that you'd make contact with us. He felt as though we'd done all we could for the night. I just assumed he'd called you,” the rescue fireman disgustedly sputtered.

“This is the first I've heard about it, but I'll be heading your way just as soon as I get dressed,” I said. I couldn't believe I hadn't been called the previous night and at least given a heads up on the situation. An obvious miscommunication somewhere along the line.

The day before, Oct. 15, started out as a warm Indian summer day. The temperatures were far above normal for this time of year.The Rev. Richard Woehr, of Unity, decided it would be a great afternoon for a season-ending sail out on Unity Pond, before stowing away his small sailboat for the ensuing long winter months ahead.

As so often happens in cases such as this, he failed to notify anyone of his intentions before venturing out onto the lake at around 4 p.m..

Little did he know it at the time, but his latest move nearly became his last sail ever.

Richard's wife returned home later that evening. She knew that her husband planned to attend a church meeting elsewhere, so when he wasn't there, she wasn't overly concerned. She simply figured he was at his preplanned church meeting.

It wasn't until 11:30 p.m. when he still wasn't home that she began to worry.

Only then did she notice the small sailboat was missing off from their front porch. She quickly hurried down to the pond, where she found his car parked in the normal parking spot whenever he went sailing.

Suddenly she realized he was in danger – grave danger.

We later learned from the Rev. Woehr, that during the afternoon as he as sailing out on the pond, the wind suddenly switched directions with the temperatures rapidly plummeting.

The rapid change in weather was quite typical of our constantly fluctuating fall New England weather pattern. The reverend started back across the lake, tacking into the wind hoping to reach his destination in the stiff breeze. But the change in wind direction carried him further and further away from his intended destination.

He realized that he wasn't going to reach his vehicle, when suddenly a large gust of wind hit the small craft, turning it over and dumping him into the cool water. The Rev. Woehr desperately searched for his life jacket, but it was inside the submerged boat, and he couldn't get at it.

By now, it was after 5 in the afternoon. The sun was quickly setting and the wind continued to howl a gale. In October, few people occupy the camps along the shoreline, and his calls for help went unanswered. Grabbing hold of the boat's flotation pad, placing it firmly beneath him, he attempted to swim back toward the shore, which was quite some distance away.

The high wind and waves battled his every stroke.He realized he could never make it under the existing conditions. Returning to the boat as a last resort, he barely managed to climb up on top of the capsized craft. Feeling a numbness in his arms and legs and a tremendous fear was beginning to overtake the pastor.

The Rev. Woehr said his faith in God simultaneously provided him with a sudden burst of inner strength and a sense of calmness.He felt as though he'd temporarily been saved from his own demise. He considered diving underneath the boat to retrieve a paddle, but he knew if he tried he wouldn't have enough strength left to climb back upon the overturned boat.

He was mentally drained and, physically strapped, as he sat astride the small half-submerged sailboat for the rest of the night. A search was initiated in the wee-morning hours, but searchers remained far away from where the sailboat had floated during the long overnight hours. The boat was upside down and bobbing along in the windswept waves.

The distraught minister was unable to draw attention to his plight. He realized he was at the mercy of the Almighty and a whole lot of luck. For the searchers, it was difficult to know where to start. After all, the pond was more than 6 miles long and quite wide.

There was a very slim chance of finding the missing man in the black of night, as he bobbed up an down in the waves and fought off a howling wind. It was hoped that the daylight at least would give the searchers a better chance for locating the Reverend, but many rescuers had already feared the worst.

“I was tempted to end the bitter cold and suffering by just slipping over the side of the boat and giving up,” the Rev. Woehr recalled.

“A thousand things went through my mind. Being a preacher, I did a lot of praying, not in desperation, but just plain talking to God.”

“I kept telling myself to hang on just a little while longer,” he said. “ I was trying to stay alive.” the Reverend related.

Upon my arrival at Unity Pond that next morning, the searchers had just spotted the sailboat at the further end of the lake. They were heading that way via rescue boat. Upon their arrival, the Rev. Woehr was still clinging to the submerged craft, barely able to speak, and completely unable to move his legs.

An ambulance met us on a nearby camp road at the far end of the lake. We carried the reverend to a waiting stretcher for some much-needed medical attention. His body temperature was a mere 6 degrees higher than what hospital staffers considered to be fatal.

Immediately, warm saline solution and heated oxygen was administered to him, and he was whisked away to the Waterville hospital where he remained for a few days - very fortunate to be alive. In this particular case, I honestly believe the other unseen passenger on that over-turned sailboat was God himself, sparing the good reverend from what should have been a tragedy.

Mr. Woehr fortunately lived to tell about his terrifying ordeal, unlike the water rescue I was called to the very next evening. But that one was a different story. One for another time. The ending and the sad facts involving that incident was one of the more bitter and disgusting searches that I'd find myself and my fellow wardens involved in during my career.

It showed a sign of disrespect and compassion from some individuals, who were influenced by alcohol and a lack of common sense. Yet more memories and stories for the diaries – never knowing what catastrophe is coming next!

John Ford Sr. is a retired State of Maine Game Warden and Waldo County Sheriff. John is a published author,”Suddenly the Cider Didn’t Taste So Good,” and “ This Cider Still Tastes Funny.” John resides in Brooks, Me. With his wife Judy. He can be reached at jonnylaw@fairpoint.net


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