Sailboat meets 700-foot tanker

Collision: Todd and Kathleen Davis have a hair-raising tale ready for their grandchildren.

August 18, 2001|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

When the sails went flat, Todd and Kathleen Davis turned to the outboard motor. That's when the key broke off in the ignition.

The radio wasn't much help either. The moment of truth - and a tanker loaded with 10 million gallons of fuel - was already upon them.

Time to jump.

"You try to stay out of the way of big ships," Kathleen Davis said. "But we knew we couldn't avoid it when we saw it barreling down on us."

With little more than a pair of life preservers, a rope and a whistle, the Frederick County couple survived two pre-dawn hours in the murky waters of the Chesapeake Bay. Pulled from the water, back on the dock, they were unhurt - but a little shaken by their face-off with the 700-foot tanker.

"It was a close call," Kathleen Davis said last night from the couple's home in Middletown. "It was a little too close."

The Davises were sailing by the light of the stars in their 27-foot Catalina Many Blessings south near the Bay Bridge, heading from a marina in Middle River to Sandy Point State Park. He's 37. She's 36.

They were on their way to visit their daughter in Annapolis. It was about 3 a.m.

The Davises were tacking - zigzagging - across the bay's Craighill shipping channel because the direction of the wind made it impossible for them to head directly south, investigators said.

Meanwhile, the Saint Vissilios, a tanker en route from the Virgin Islands to the Port of Baltimore, was heading north after a stop in Annapolis.

About a mile north of the Bay Bridge, the Davises saw the tanker. They tried to maneuver out of its way.

The sails drooped. They frantically tried to start the motor. Todd Davis radioed a "May Day" to the Coast Guard.

Seconds later, they went overboard.

The freighter, blasting its horn and trying desperately to avoid the smaller vessel, scraped the sailboat and went aground. By then, the Davises were bobbing in the bay.

Todd Davis tried to figure out how to keep from drifting away from his wife.

"He said, `It would be great if we had something to tie us together,'" Kathleen Davis recalled.

She remembered she had a sailing line in her pocket.

"That," she said, "allowed us to swim together."

Rescuers from the Coast Guard, the Maryland State Police, the state Department of Natural Resources police, Anne Arundel and Queen Anne's County and the city of Annapolis set out in search of the couple. Rescue boats and helicopters crisscrossed the bay, their efforts hindered by the darkness.

"There wasn't even much moonlight," said Natural Resources police Cpl. Gray Maggart. "The whole time you worried about the condition of the boaters."

Fortunately for the Davises, hypothermia was not an issue. The water in the bay is warmer than 70 degrees.

After about two hours, the Davises were near Love Point on the Eastern Shore. When search teams got close, Todd Davis blew a whistle attached to his life jacket and yelled "Help" so they could find them.

The freighter was briefly grounded north of the Sandy Point Light House, Coast Guard Lt. Richard Frattarelli said. But when the tide rose, the crew was able to motor off the sand, he said.

By evening, the ship had reached its destination at the Hess terminal in Baltimore, according to port authorities.

The ship was not damaged and apparently didn't leak any of the fuel it was carrying, Frattarelli said. The Coast Guard and the DNR are jointly investigating the accident.

The Davises' sailboat ended up wedged between two private piers in Pasadena, just south of Downs Park. Maryland Natural Resources Police reunited the soggy sailors and their boat yesterday afternoon. The couple sailed to their original destination in Annapolis.

"We're fine," Kathleen Davis said. "This definitely is not going to stop my husband. He's been sailing most of his life."

But, she said, "I'm not going out for any more midnight sails for awhile."

Sun staff writer Jackie Powder contributed to this article.

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