NEWBURYPORT — Friends of Richard Decker, who presumably fell off his sailboat and disappeared into the chilly Merrimack River almost two weeks ago, met at Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church yesterday to pay tribute to the man who loved sailing, medical technology and Web design.
Yesterday’s hour-long ceremony in the basement of the Harris Street church gave those who knew the German man a chance to celebrate his life and meet others who grew close to him in a short time.
“He’s a very likable person,” said Hans Ikier, a Plum Island resident also from Germany who befriended Decker two months ago.
It is believed the 51-year-old Decker, who had been living on the 37-foot Endeavor on the Salisbury side of the river adjacent to Cashman Park in Newburyport, fell into the roughly 40-degree water sometime around 9 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 15.
The search for him began the next morning, several hours after police received a call about a dog tied to a pole at Cashman Park. They identified the dog, a Siberian husky named Toleman, as belonging to Decker. The Coast Guard discovered his overturned dingy tied to his sailboat, and upon searching the vessel, found no one onboard.
Local and state police dive teams entered the water, aided by a sonar-like device designed to pick up objects on the river bottom. But after two days of diving, authorities decided to give up the search.
Police are still trying to piece together what caused Decker to fall out of his dingy and into the water. It appears while in the dingy, he had tried to cut a rope that had become entangled around the sailboat’s propeller when it flipped over.
It’s believed that Decker left his dog tied to the pole at the shoreline because the dog was afraid of the tipsy dinghy. Authorities think Decker planned to bring the sailboat to Cashman Park to pick up his dog.
“He must have flipped over and into the water,” Ikier said.
A similar drowning occurred in the same general area of the river in the late fall of 2002, when a 44-year-old man was attempting to step from his sailboat into his dinghy. The man fell in and drowned; although the search ranged far up and down the river, his body was recovered on the river bottom within a few yards of the boat.
A few days before yesterday’s ceremony, Decker’s friends met at Cashman Park and placed a wreath near the spot where Toleman had been found.
Decker is a German national who grew up on the Rhine River and had been living in the North Shore area for several months. He had purchased the sailboat earlier this fall and had been working on it at a Haverhill marina before putting it in the water more than a month ago.
According to Ikier, the German consulate has located Decker’s family and informed them of his disappearance. The Endeavor, Ikier added, is expected to be sold as soon as possible.
Ikier may have been the last person to see Decker alive. The two had dinner with another friend at the Salvation Army in Newburyport at 5 p.m. on the night of his disappearance.
Ikier said he was drawn to Decker via their shared interest in medical technology as well their sailing backgrounds. Ikier encouraged Decker to follow his passion for magnetic resonance imaging technology to Anna Jaques Hospital in Newburyport or perhaps MRI facilities in Boston-area hospitals.
“His ambition was to work with the National Institute of Health, that was sort of his long-range goal,” Ikier said.
Before Decker began living on the Endeavor, he spent months in a recreational vehicle parked in a lot owned by another friend, Lexy Wright of Georgetown.
“He was an extraordinary, gentle, dear, dear man. Just a delightful human being,” Wright said.
Wright said Decker’s abilities designing Web pages in his native Germany drew wide acclaim all across the continent, where he was considered an authority.
“He was sort of a rock star in the cyberworld in Europe and England,” Wright said.