Inexperience can lead to tragedy on water


May 13, 1999|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,SUN STAFF

With the wind comfortably at your back, you head out for an afternoon of boating in a parade of small whitecaps marching down the river toward Chesapeake Bay.

The boat is old, but apparently strong. The family is wearing life jackets, and the engine pulls the small boat steadily and safely along.

And then the unexpected happens -- a large powerboat overtakes the smaller boat on the starboard side, its wake splashing water over the gunwale at first and then causes the smaller boat to roll heavily, while pitching its bow and burying its stern in the waves.

Within seconds, pleasure has turned to peril, and within minutes a life has been lost.

It is the side of boating that often is unexpected and not often experienced on Maryland waters. But for a Maryland family, the unexpected happened last weekend, and a 10-year-old boy drowned in the Patapsco River near Key Bridge.

"The tragic thing is that they apparently did what they were supposed to do -- wearing life jackets and so on -- and the incident still occurred," said Richard McIntire, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Police, which is investigating the accident. "But there were a number of factors contributing to this tragic accident."

According to the NRP, the boat was a 17-foot bowrider built in 1968 and purchased only a couple of weeks before. The driver, McIntire said, had no boating experience. The two children aboard were positioned forward in the bow seats.

And the family was transiting one of the busiest rivers in Maryland on one of the warmest weekends of the early season.

"I would definitely say it is a busy area. You have a lot of [commercial] shipping and pleasure boats, power and sail. There is Key Bridge and Carroll Island and Fort Armistead with its public ramp," said Executive Petty Officer Paula Wilhelm of the Coast Guard's Baltimore Activities Center. "I pay close attention when I transit through there. I pay very close attention."

The Patapsco leading into Baltimore, the Severn leading into Annapolis, the Patuxent leading to Solomons and the entrances to Kent Narrows all have their problems with heavy boat traffic, Wilhelm said.

But the Patapsco, especially from Key Bridge to the entrance to Northwest Harbor, is an urban danger zone, especially on weekends.

"There is a little bit of everything in the Patapsco -- commercial fishing, recreational and fishing boaters and commercial shipping," said NRP Sgt. Ronald Dring, who has patrolled Maryland waters for 28 years. "There is always something different going on. But there are also a lot of hazards, so you really have to be alert."

Ruins of docks and piers, floating debris, dredging operations and ship and boat traffic all must be considered when navigating, he said.

Dring and Wilhelm said bottom contours, currents, wind and boat wakes all contribute to make the hazards greater in areas such as the Patapsco -- and the inexperienced boater is at a decided disadvantage.

"Visibility can be a problem because of the buildings along the shorelines, and even in daylight some of the smaller tugs can blend into the background," said Wilhelm, who regularly patrols the river. "And you can get wakes from all different directions, from little boats and 1,000-foot boats."

Wakes from passing boats can be deceiving, Wilhelm said, spreading out a half-mile and sometimes farther from large powerboats. And while the danger presented by a series of three- or four-foot wake waves must be faced by other boaters, the responsibility for damages generally lies with the boat building the wake.

"You are responsible for your wake," Wilhelm said. "And even though it's a half-mile back, it still can be fairly large and cause damage."

But it also is the responsibility of every boat operator to know the limitations of his boat and to operate it in a safe manner at all times, Dring said.

The 17-footer involved in the Sunday accident, Dring said, was heavily loaded and improperly balanced.

"They had 900 pounds of people on board," Dring said. " It's lack of experience, really.

"There's a capacity plate on the boat that lists the number of people it can carry, and it said seven at 150 pounds each. But there is also a total weight for people and gear and so on, and they were probably close to that."

The design of the boat also contributed, said Dring, who described it as an open-bow with a walk-thru windshield and a bench seat at the front of the boat.

"The parents were right behind the windshield, but the boys were right in the bow and the majority of weight was forward of the centerline," Dring said. "So they probably were in trouble right from the beginning.

"It was their first time on the water. The first time they had had the boat in the water, and they were in a challenging area."

The family launched the boat at Middle Branch and planned to go to the Key Bridge and back. The boat and the 10-year-old's body, trapped by the boat as it sank, were recovered about a half-mile north of the bridge.

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