A man to remember, a night to forget

August 10, 1994|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun Staff Writer

Steve Bickell was a sailing "rock star," his friends say.

The 47-year-old Annapolis businessman loved to race sailboats, and he was good at it. He had a shelf full of trophies in his home to show for it.

That's what makes it all the more tragic -- and perhaps fitting, his friends add -- that he was killed Friday evening in a freak accident while competing in the Governor's Cup yacht race on Chesapeake Bay.

"If somebody said, 'Steve, your time's up, here's a list of ways to go,' he'd have picked this one," said Dan Breen, a longtime friend, business partner and former sailing partner.

About 90 minutes into the overnight race from Annapolis to St. Mary's City, vying for the lead amid gusty winds and 4-foot waves off Poplar Island, Stephen A. Bickell was knocked overboard after he was slammed in the head by the boom of the 40-foot sloop Electra.

His crew mates threw a life preserver after him and quickly turned their boat around to go back after him, shredding a costly spinnaker in the process. But Mr. Bickell "sank like a rock" and never surfaced, said Andrew Wilson, the Electra's skipper and owner.

An air and sea search launched within minutes by his crew's distress call also proved fruitless. Two days later, a boater found Mr. Bickell's body floating about a mile south of Tilghman Island.

His death has stunned the close-knit Annapolis sailing community, where Mr. Bickell was known as an experienced sailor who had skippered his own racing boat, Cold Gold, for years before joining the Electra's crew.

"If you could have Steve on your boat, you felt really good about it," said Mr. Wilson, an Annapolis lawyer who said he had sailed with Mr. Bickell for five years. "He could take the place of two or three people. He knew how to do it all."

Though Mr. Wilson owned the Electra, Mr. Bickell was its tactician, directing the crew's efforts during a race. Under his guidance, Mr. Wilson's boat climbed from near the bottom to first place in the Wednesday night races sponsored by the Annapolis Yacht Club.

On Friday evening, with about 45 minutes left before dusk, the boat was running south before 25-knot gusts, and the Electra had its main sail on the port, or left, with its spinnaker deployed to the starboard, or right, to get maximum speed from the wind.

"I had the helm, and the boat got away from me and came up," Mr. Wilson said. As the boat veered into the wind, the gusts blew into the main sail and swung the boom violently across the boat.

"The wind pops to the other side of the sail and blasts it over like a rifle shot," explained Mr. Breen. The boom, the horizontal spar to which the sail is anchored, sweeps across the boat's deck "like a 15-foot baseball bat."

Mr. Bickell was standing on the right side of the boat, tending the spinnaker when he was hit. Sailboats can jibe, or change direction suddenly, during a race, and many sailors recall brushes with the boom.

Mr. Wilson said his crew is trained to call out "Heads!" and "Watch the jibe!," and he recalls hearing it that evening.

"Everybody ducked into the cockpit [the recessed area in the rear of the boat] but Steve," said Mr. Wilson.

Mr. Bickell was not wearing a life jacket at the time, which by Coast Guard regulations must be on board but need not be worn.

But his crew mates say that while a life preserver might have made it easier to find Mr. Bickell in the water, they don't believe it would have saved him.

He was undoubtedly knocked unconscious by the blow, and the standard-issue Type 3 life jackets will not hold an unconscious adult's head above water.

Mr. Bickell's head injuries were so severe that Sally Hayes, his girlfriend, said she believes that "he was dead when he hit the water."

"Anyone who sails knows that there's always a risk of some sort of accident," said Ms. Hayes. "When you race, you're pushing the boat to the limit, and you're pushing the [crew] to the limit. It's no different than the people who go out and race cars in the Indianapolis 500."

Mr. Bickell would not have had it any other way, his friend say. He pursued a dizzying variety of business and sporting activities.

He built expensive custom homes. He manufactured wooden toys and invented wooden serving trays to attach to crate-furniture chairs and couches, said Mr. Breen.

In the winter, he skied and was a member of the ski patrol at Sugarloaf in Maine. He was an accomplished scuba diver and part owner of a dive boat. He played Wally-ball, an indoor form of volleyball.

"I always kidded him and called him a Renaissance man," Ms. Hayes said, "because there wasn't anything he couldn't do and do well. He was as good at making curtains for his house as he was at racing and skiing."

"Anything he did he did well," said Mr. Wilson. "He went after it with the zeal of a bulldog chasing a cat."

A native of Williamsport, Pa., and a mechanical engineering graduate of the University of Maryland, Mr. Bickell is survived by a son, Scott Bickell of Annapolis; his mother, Eleanor Richardson; a brother, John Bickell of Annapolis; and a sister, Candy Rayne of Pittsville, Md.

A funeral mass will be said at 9:30 a.m. tomorrow at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Annapolis. Mr. Bickell's sailing friends plan to get together at 5 p.m. Friday for what Ms. Hayes calls a "farewell party" at Bert Jabin's Yacht Yard.

Mr. Wilson said he plans to race Electra in tonight's sailboat race, just as he has every Wednesday night this summer.

"The nicest thing we could say at Steve's funeral on Thursday is: 'We won last night, Steve. Thanks.' "

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