Despite relative calm, forecasts warned of killer weather system


December 07, 1993|By PETER BAKER

Sunday morning, the El Toro II set out from Ridge, in St. Mary's County, with 23 people aboard to fish for rockfish in Virginia's waters of the Chesapeake Bay. Sunday afternoon, the 60-foot headboat foundered in heavy seas and, despite an admirable and timely rescue operation, two died.

The U.S. Coast Guard and the Natural Resources Police are probing the cause of the sinking of the El Toro II. At this point, the cause has been reported as a sprung plank that flooded the engine room, killing the power plant, disabling the boat's pumps and eventually sinking it.

What will be harder to determine is why Capt. Joseph Lore and the El Toro II put out from Ridge in the first place.

The answer might seem obvious -- the people aboard had paid their fee to catch rockfish, and, by golly, no little bit of wind and rain was going to keep an experienced skipper and a 60-foot boat from completing their appointed rounds.

But, according to the National Weather Service, the warning signals were in place nearly five hours before the El Toro II left the dock, reportedly at 8:15 a.m.

At 3:39 a.m., the National Weather Service marine forecast carried its first small craft advisory of the day.

At 7 a.m. conditions were winds of 25 to 30 knots and seas running about 4 feet.

At 8:53 a.m., the weather service issued its first gale warning of the day, advising of the potential for winds of 30 to 35 knots, with higher gusts, and waves of 6 feet.

But by then the El Toro II was on its way out on an ebbing tide, with the wind dropping and the seas beginning to subside.

While the El Toro II bullied its way toward Virginia waters, the low pressure system that had made the bay slightly riotous earlier in the day was growing stronger in the west-southwest.

And a weather service meteorologist was monitoring the rapid ++ development of the storm, which turned out to be a killer as it rushed east-northeast.

"It was a very interesting situation that developed," said Jim Bellville, meteorologist in charge at the weather service's forecast office in Washington. "We had a low pressure center moving through the area, and it was deepening -- or getting stronger -- quite rapidly as it moved across.

"However, as the low moved across the bay itself, the winds went almost calm. That was about 9 or 10 o'clock [Sunday] morning," Bellville said yesterday.

But as the center of the low moved onto the Eastern Shore, Bellville said, "The winds around the back side, which are the strongest winds, became very strong very quickly."

Bellville said the highest gust reported on the service's land stations was 45 mph at Patuxent Naval Air Station, well north of Point Lookout, "but there could have been some higher gusts out on the bay itself."

And the wind gusted up around 45 mph until about 5 p.m., starting around noon -- some two hours before the first mayday from the El Toro II around 2:15 p.m. -- and carrying through the rescue operation.

"But earlier in the day conditions would have been very misleading," said Bellville, "because the winds were so light -- but that was right in the center of the storm."

In fact, when the gale warning was issued at 8:53 a.m., Bellville said, winds were calm.

And for the next three hours or so, the general impression of anyone on the water might have been that the storm had passed. The rain, carried on the front edge of the weather system, would have become light or nonexistent in the center. The overcast sky would have been lightening. Based on local conditions, one might have thought the storm had passed and the day ahead had the potential for decent fishing.

"But we were forecasting winds to increase significantly as it got toward noon, becoming 30 to 35 knots and gusty with waves to 6 feet," Bellville said.

"That was our bay forecast. So the forecast was there. It was just that sea conditions were not that bad initially, but they got very bad after the low passed by."

How bad? The Coast Guard estimated seas running 6 to 8 feet, which Bellville said is as rough as the bay ever gets, "unless we have a hurricane impinging on the area."

Several charterboat captains interviewed yesterday afternoon acknowledged that the waters below Point Lookout were rough, and some said they had returned to their docks early because of the bad weather.

The El Toro II also was heading in when it began to take on water in the 6-foot seas. But the gale warning had been on the air for more than six hours by the time the first mayday was called in.

One has to wonder whether anyone on board the El Toro II was listening.

"He was in range of our weather broadcasts all the way down the bay," Bellville said, "and the first thing these updated advisories go out on is the weather radio."

But a weather broadcast only works if someone is listening.

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