Sinking won't deter anglers, captains say

April 27, 1994|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Sun Staff Writer

RIDGE -- The red letters promoting "El Toro" still show through white paint on signs advertising Joseph C. Lore's charter boat business in Ridge, a fading reminder of the fatal accident last year in which the 60-foot boat sank in Chesapeake Bay off Point Lookout.

Charter boat captains in this Southern Maryland community say memories of the accident that claimed three lives are fading as well and won't affect business when rockfish season opens Sunday.

"Any tragedy is traumatic for a while," said Bruce Scheible, whose company operates 17 boats, a restaurant and a small motel on Calvert Bay. "But things tend to settle down. This was an isolated case. When you look back over the years, it was an unheard-of occurrence."

Cindy Woodburn, a tourism specialist for St. Mary's County, worried that stories stemming from the accident are "probably going to filter out throughout the year," but added that few people calling for information ask about the El Toro.

She said the charter boat industry is the second largest tourism draw behind historic sites in a county that calls itself "The Sports Fishing Capital of the Chesapeake Bay."

Money earned during the rockfish season is vital to the county's economy, she said. The importance of the industry can be seen all over Ridge, where signs and billboards advertising fishing charters appear on streets all over the community.

Small signs are posted in front of houses where one captain relies on one boat to earn a living, and billboards are at strategic intersections, such as those promoting Scheible's Fishing Center, which opened in 1946 and employs 50 summer workers.

One accident will not deter avid anglers from the sport, Mr. Scheible said.

"One day, a millionaire will walk through these doors and the next day a redneck will come in," Mr. Scheible said. "They all share one thing in common: fishing."

Joe Rupp, president of the 350-member Maryland Charter Boat Association, agreed, stressing that the accident and the intense media coverage of hearings surrounding it should not hurt the business, in which 250,000 anglers went out on 18,000 trips last year.

"There is not much more to say about it," Mr. Rupp said. "There is nothing to say at all. . . . It happened. It was an accident. It's unfortunate, but it's over and life moves on."

The El Toro II was returning from a day of fishing in Virginia waters when it sank in heavy seas Dec. 5, spilling 23 people, including Mr. Lore and his son, Capt. Clayton S. Lore, into the waves.

The Coast Guard plucked unconscious passengers from the water and others who were huddled together on the cabin of the partially submerged boat to keep warm. One passenger and a crew member died that night at local hospitals and another passenger died a week later.

Coast Guard hearings focused on three loose planks on the port side hull that leaked, corroded nails and the maintenance of the boat.

Three days before the accident, an insurance inspector reported that the boat "may be the worst Coast Guard-inspected boat I have seen," and declared it unfit to operate. But the inspector, Kim I. MacCartney of Chesapeake, Va., testified during the hearings that he did not tell the owners, because he was led to believe the boat would not go out again until spring. Those issues will be addressed in a final report by Coast Guard Cmdr. Glenn Anderson, which is expected next month.

Commander Anderson would not comment on his conclusions but said he made recommendations on the operator's license, Coast Guard requirements for safety equipment and training, and qualifications for Coast Guard inspectors.

He said inspectors already have changed their methods. They now remove and check all fasteners on the bottom of boats and have added surprise visits. Before December, boats were inspected once a year.

"The premise there is that at the hearings, it came out that some boats are made to look good for inspections but not maintained for the rest of the year," Commander Anderson said.

Mr. Lore, 53, is waiting for the results of Coast Guard inspections, due early next month, of two of his remaining four boats, Olympus and Lucky, and preparing all boats at his pier on St. Jerome's Creek for the season. His captain's insurance expires May 10, and he and other charter boat owners said they are anticipating a sharp rate increase because of the accident.

But he also said he is "not worried at all" about potentially losing his license because of the Coast Guard investigation. "It wasn't anything that I did that was wrong."

Already, he said, dozens of people have booked fishing trips with his company, Chesapeake Bay Fishing Parties, and only a handful have asked about the accident.

"I don't think it will have any effect," he said. "The inspection process is different now, so people realize the boats are in better conditions."

Yet, he concedes, he remains haunted by the accident. "You don't get over that too soon," said Mr. Lore, who sold the salvaged El Toro to a commercial fisherman working at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. "It's something you never forget."

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