Boats float, until they don’t
Responders know what leads to trouble
Like the sirens’ calls to Ulysses, the beauty of Southern Maryland’s waterways lures droves of enthusiasts aboard all types of vessels each spring as warm weather returns.
And it’s also a worrisome time, for first responders, boat-retrieval workers and other people who have witnessed first hand just how unforgiving those same waters can be when something goes wrong.
They know that adherence to some basic safety guidelines can minimize the likelihood of a fun trip turning into tragedy.
Wes Jackson, lieutenant of boat operations with Cobb Island Volunteer Fire Department and Emergency Medical
Services, said the Charles County organization’s 32foot response boat and smaller inflatable boat were put into service 40 times last year for water rescue and boat-in-distress calls. The larger boat moored at Neale Sound near the firehouse can carry 16 people, including four to six patients, to get them safely to shore, or serve as a floating platform for them to be hoisted directly to a helicopter.
Jackson, also a captain with TowBoatUS, said the calls can range from “a broken-down vessel to people in the water,” along with boats that are taking on water, medical emergencies and boat fires that can be far more difficult to douse than a blaze on dry land.
“Boat fires are definitely more challenging because of the locations of them,” he said. “Our resources are limited. We carry much more tactical equipment on our engines.”
Fuel hazards also are a greater concern with boat fires, Jackson said, while they’re being doused with the larger boat’s 1,250-gallon-per-minute, pump-fed deck gun and two 100-foot hoses. “The boat’s been used several times to supply water to structure fires in waterfront areas,” he said, including drawing water from the waterways for that purpose.
But all the equipment in the world sometimes can’t right a situation that clearly was avoidable.
“Ninety percent of the time, the calls that we run [on the water] are from boaters being unprepared,” Jackson said, including their failure to watch the weather and not having proper safety equipment, such as enough life jackets.
“Not watching the weather puts them in a bad situation,” he said. “It almost guaranteed, to get a call [during] the front end of a thunderstorm, for a boater caught in the weather.”
Passengers on a sinking vessel eventually might have to abandon ship, and Jackson said “the biggest thing we see with people in the water is not wearing life jackets, ... [because] they can’t get to them fast enough. They’re [instead] hanging onto the side of the vessel.”
Life jackets too frequently are stored where they’re not accessible, he said, when “the key is to have them readily available.”
Many marinas offer loaner life jackets, he said, not only for boating, but for guests, especially children, who might be attending a waterside event or fishing from a pier. “We recommend that if [children are within] 10 feet of the water’s edge, to have a life jacket on,” Jackson said.
Boaters can do other things to make their outings safer, such as avoiding solo excursions, and leaving a trip plan with a responsible person who can notify authorities if the boat’s return is overdue.
Not all tragedies on the water involve boats.
“Unfortunately, we tend to see a couple drownings every year,” Jackson said. “They might think [a waterway’s depth] is shallow enough to touch bottom, but it’s deeper.”
Witnesses to a swimmer in trouble are encouraged to try to throw them a flotation device or reach out to them with a long pole, as opposed to also putting themselves in the same trouble.
“The last thing they want to do is go in the water after them,” Jackson said, “especially without a life jacket on.”
But in addition to all the things that can be done to increase safety in and on the water, Jackson said there’s a major no-no — drinking alcohol.
The mixture of sun, wind and water “intensifies the effects of alcohol,” he said, along with the consequences of dehydration.
“It’s not just the operators” who need to heed that warning, the lieutenant said. “It’s the passengers as well. They could fall overboard. It’s a very dangerous situation. Do not drink and boat.”
Keeping up with maintenance
Being ship safe and ready to go means more than just having the right equipment on board, according to William Merritt, a captain with Sea Tow Southern Maryland operating in southern St. Mary’s.
“The worse thing I see is they go out unprepared,” he said, and that includes not adhering to the proper maintenance of a boat.
Batteries should be changed every two years, Merritt said, and fuel filters should be changed every year.
Many boaters also need to make themselves more familiar with the equipment that they already have, and can keep them out of trouble.
“They’re not prepared as far as how to use the GPS,” Merritt said, along with the other navigational equipment that’s on board.
Dealing with danger
Five years ago last winter, a college freshman who was back home in Hollywood decided to take advantage of unseasonably warm weather and paddle a canoe across a shallow inlet to run on a beach. A gust of wind blew the beached canoe out into the Patuxent River, and he headed out in another canoe to bring it back. His stepfather arrived home, got aboard a Jet Ski, and found the young canoeist tightly gripping its sides amid two- to three-foot swells.
Michael Roberts said last month that he was experienced with canoeing, and realized when the situation had put him in harm’s way.
“I didn’t have a paddle with me,” he said.
Leonardtown and Solomons volunteer firefighters also went to the scene and got Roberts back to shore, as Jimmy Dicus was there assuring his wife that her son was OK.
Dicus recently recalled the experience involving the student now getting ready to graduate in Colorado, and shared thoughts on the delights and dangers of life on the water.
“People are naturally attracted to the water — for fun, livelihood, recreation, fishing, crabbing, as well as for the calming and soothing effects it has,” Discus wrote. “Its effect and attraction is mesmerizing. But as a force of nature it must be respected [and] revered, because it is unforgiving and is capable of swallowing a person in an instant.”
On the water, he added, “There are so many things that can go wrong that a person may not foresee, [such as] a sudden storm, a current or wave [and] undertow, hitting your head if you slip, getting knocked overboard, or getting caught in a line.”
Sharing love of sailing, respect for safety
In 1997, a priest in St. Mary’s 7th District asked Douglas E. Yeckley of Calvert County to come to the church’s school and start a Sea Scout boating safety program.
“I went over for a day, and I stayed for 20 years,” Yeckley said during a recent gathering of members of Sea Scout Ship 548 at his home in the Lusby community.
The unit encompassing all of Calvert and St. Mary’s, along with a portion of Charles County, has drawn about 80 young people to go through as many as four advancement ranks, and now is sponsored by the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons. Yeckley, who at one time served as commodore for a Sea Scout council overseeing 20 units from Frederick throughout Maryland to Stafford, Va., has passed on the post of skipper for the unit to a younger member, but still remains actively involved with the organization that shares an affiliation but a different focus than the Boy Scouts of America.
“They learn camp craft,” Yeckley said. “We learn boating safety.”
He recalled his recruitment pitch for prospective members.
“I ask them two things, ‘Do you like boats? Do you like girls?,’” Yeckley said. “We have boats, and girls.”
“What they find out is it’s not just going on boat rides,” John Johnson, 79, of Hollywood said. “It takes some dedication.”
Yeckley and Johnson concurred that during those boat rides, they generally sit in the cockpit and tell sea stories, while the younger members take care of the work that needs to be done.
And that’s OK with Brenda Renninger and Gabi Backus, two Lusby residents among about half a dozen current youth members in their unit.
Their first year of membership includes taking a boating safety course, and continuing half-hour increments of instruction on Tuesday evenings. They take a swimming test every year, and wear their life jackets when they head out aboard the unit’s 46-foot schooner, and smaller sailing craft.
Renninger, 21, joined the program when she was 12 years old and had no boating experience. She now is the unit’s skipper. “I just stayed,” she said. “I liked the leadership skills that the program offers.”
Backus, 16, also signed on at an early age. “My Girl Scout troop went out on a cruise, and then I stayed,” she said. “I was 10.”
The current recruitment efforts include presenting activities at regional maritime events, in all three Southern Maryland counties, to offer more young people the opportunity to sail, and to learn how to do it safely.
“I think people just don’t know about it,” Backus said.
Wes Jackson stands at the controls of a 32-foot fire and rescue boat, as the lieutenant of boat operations with Cobb Island Volunteer Fire Department and Emergency Medical Services.
A Sea Tow boat sits trailered and ready for deployment in southern St. Mary’s.
Michael Roberts and his stepfather, Jimmy Dicus, reflect on their good fortune, and reviewed a list of water safety tips, after the younger man’s canoeing mishap in 2012 on the Patuxent River.
Brenda Renninger, left, a skipper with an area Sea Scout program, stands with Gabi Backus behind Douglas E. Yeckley, a Lusby resident who once served as commodore for the program’s regional council.