Couple sues over Chesapeake sailing trip Visitor from France is maimed, ring lost in channel, lawsuit says

January 26, 1998|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

Somewhere in the waters near Tilghman Island is part of a severed finger and a sapphire and ruby ring worth $150,000, grim remnants of a harrowing boat ride on the Chesapeake that a Parisian couple will never forget.

That's the story spelled out in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore by Christiane and Claude Cellier, who claim the boat captain and an Annapolis ship chartering company negligently put them aboard an unseaworthy vessel in bad weather in May.

Mrs. Cellier's right hand was maimed during the three-day voyage when it became entangled in a rope aboard the Bunbury, a 48-foot sailboat they had rented through Annapolis Bay Charters. Her jeweled anniversary ring, set in platinum, sank into Knapps Narrows, a silty shallow strip of water commonly used as a shortcut to St. Michaels.

"The ring, as well as being quite valuable, has tremendous sentimental value for her, because it was an anniversary gift," said Kathleen A. Birrane, a Baltimore lawyer representing the Celliers. "The current in that area is quite brisk, and the ring was probably swept out. It's hard to say where it may be now."

The couple is seeking $1.5 million.

Bunbury's captain the day of the mishap was David A. Blair of Annapolis, who was convicted in Talbot County District Court of negligent operation of a vessel during the Celliers' trip, court records showed. Blair has appealed the conviction.

Claude Cellier is an investment banker in Paris and Christiane Cellier is a screenwriter for French television and a founder of the French equivalent of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. The couple came to Maryland last year for a friend's wedding in St. Michaels and had chartered the Bunbury for a three-day cruise before the wedding, according to the lawsuit.

Annapolis Bay Charters hired Blair to captain the Bunbury, but he had not been aboard it until about a month before the Celliers' charter, according to court papers filed by Blair in U.S. District Court.

Blair said in the court papers that the Bunbury "was not seaworthy" at the time of the Celliers' voyage, noting that "the vessel's bow thrusters were inadequate to allow him to maneuver the vessel in the strong currents and winds" he faced May 21, the night of the accident.

Annapolis Bay Charters didn't respond to a request to be interviewed.

Blair left Oxford that morning with the Celliers, his only passengers. Because of a heavy head wind that slowed the boat, he decided to cut through Knapps Narrows instead of going the long way around Tilghman Island, the lawsuit said.

But choppy waters in Knapps Narrows appeared to make the captain nervous, the lawsuit said, and he decided to turn around and head back to Oxford. High winds and a strong current gave the boat problems and he tried to dock at a small fueling pier in the narrows, the suit said.

Christiane Cellier claims in the lawsuit that Blair instructed her, despite her inexperience aboard a boat, to go to the bow and take a rope line from a dock hand.

Blair contends he did not order her to do so.

The 63-year-old woman's hand became entangled in the rope. "The weight of the vessel began to pull against the line, crushing Mrs. Cellier's hand," the lawsuit said.

The Bunbury eventually went out of control as Blair was trying to dock it and slammed against a nearby bridge span, the lawsuit said.

Christiane Cellier's right index finger was torn and was later amputated at Union Memorial Hospital. Other fingers were crushed and broken, including the finger on which she wore the sapphire and ruby ring, the lawsuit said.

The Coast Guard also investigated the incident and concluded that Blair "made an error in judgment trying to navigate Knapps Narrows in those kind of weather conditions," said Lt. Michael Jendrossek, chief of investigations for the Baltimore office of the Coast Guard.

Blair was not cited by Coast Guard officials, but they recommended him for "a refresher course in ship handling and ship maneuvering," said Jendrossek, who said Blair had a good nautical record before the incident.

Blair refused to comment on the incident other than to say he has appealed his conviction for negligence.

Pub Date: 1/26/98

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