Boats float, un­til they don’t

Re­spon­ders know what leads to trou­ble

Maryland Independent - - Front Page - By JOHN WHAR­TON jwhar­ton@somd­

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.

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