A surfer wipes out while riding waves at Short Sands Beach, Monday, Aug. 17, 2020, in York, Maine. Deaths among people swimming or boating along the Maine coast have spiked this summer. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

Deaths among people swimming or boating along the Maine coast — including a woman killed by a shark in July — have spiked this summer, making 2020 the state’s deadliest of the past few years for recreational and commercial mariners.

Earlier this week, three people died in Maine’s coastal waters, bringing the statewide total so far this year to nine, including seven in just the past two months. That is the most ocean fatalities Maine has had since at least 2015, when six people died after their boats capsized or while they were boating, including two people believed to have died of natural causes.

This week, William Lamb, 82, of Charlestown, Massachusetts, was found dead Monday on a beach on Little Deer Isle after he failed to return from a rowboat outing. On Sunday, Donald Vardell Jr., 53, of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, died after his kayak overturned off Ogunquit and Tonya Cianchette, 45, of Saco, died at a hospital in Portsmouth after having been involved in a scuba diving accident off Kittery.

Maine’s Marine Patrol, which responds to near-shore maritime incidents and enforces fishing regulations, has had a busier year than normal in responding to fatal accidents along the coast, said Jeff Nichols, spokesperson for the Maine Department of Marine Resources, which includes the Marine Patrol.

While comprehensive annual statistics weren’t readily available, Nichols said, the Marine Patrol has handled more fatalities this year than in any of the five previous years, and perhaps longer.

Nichols said the department does not have any information about why 2020 has had an uptick in fatal accidents, such as whether there might be more people recreating at sea in Maine this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, or some other contributing factor.

In all, seven people died this year along the Maine coast in just July and August, including a New York City woman who was attacked and killed by a shark while swimming off Harpswell on July 27. The woman who died, Julie Dimperio Holowach, 63, is the first person in Maine ever known to have been killed by a shark.

Others who have perished in Maine’s coastal waters this year include another scuba diver who died off York on July 7, and Joe Nickerson and Chris Pinkham, two lobstermen whose boat sank about 45 miles off Portland in January.

Historical data about deaths while swimming or boating along the Maine coast were not readily available Thursday, but a review of archived news reports indicate that 2009 was a deadlier year in Maine than 2020 has been so far.

In 2009, at least 10 people died in the waters off Maine’s coast, including six fishermen who drowned in separate incidents in Cobscook Bay and a 7-year-old girl from New York City who drowned after she was among more than a dozen sightseers struck by a large wave while standing on the shore of Acadia National Park as Hurricane Bill was bypassing Maine out at sea.

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....