Publisher missing from sailboat in bay

Merrill, Arundel philanthropist, ex-diplomat, was alone on yacht

June 12, 2006|By NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON AND LAURA CADIZ | NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON AND LAURA CADIZ,SUN REPORTERS

Publisher Philip Merrill, a philanthropist and former diplomat, was missing and feared dead yesterday, a day after disappearing from his yacht during a windy solo sailing excursion on the Chesapeake Bay.

Merrill, chairman of Capital-Gazette Newspapers and donor of millions of dollars for causes including the Chesapeake Bay and the University of Maryland's journalism school, left the dock of his Arnold home on the Severn River about 2 p.m. Saturday, and his 41-foot yacht was found unattended five hours later in bay shallows near Plum Point in Calvert County, authorities said.

The Coast Guard and Maryland Natural Resources Police were searching by sea and air across about 100 square miles of the Chesapeake.

"As time goes by, chances of survival are less and less," said Col. Mark S. Chaney, superintendent of the Natural Resources Police.

"The only information we have is where he was supposed to be, where he started and where we found the boat," said Senior Chief Steve Carleton, a spokesman for the Coast Guard. "And in that period of time, a lot of things could have happened."

A longtime sailor, Merrill, 72, set off despite windy conditions that prompted a small-craft warning on the bay. He might have been headed to Kent Island, a round trip of 18 to 20 miles that normally takes about two hours, Chaney said.

Family members said Merrill planned to sail near the mouth of the Severn River, according to Tom Marquardt, executive editor of The Capital, the Annapolis daily newspaper that is one of several publications Merrill owns, including Washingtonian magazine.

Merrill took leave from his work as a publisher from 1990 to 1992, when he served in Brussels as assistant secretary-general of NATO, and from 2002 until early last year for an appointment by President Bush to fill out a term as president and chairman of the Export-Import Bank of the United States.

Merrill's 1988 Bristol sailboat, named Merrilly, was spotted in shallow water near Plum Point about 7 p.m. Saturday by two personal watercraft operators, Chaney said. They steered the boat into deeper waters and alerted authorities, Chaney said.

The yacht had drifted south off course about 15 miles, Chaney said. According to Marquardt, its sails were up and Merrill's wallet was on board.

Coast Guard and Natural Resources Police said that there was no evidence that anyone else had been on board and that they were assuming Merrill fell overboard.

Four personal flotation devices were on the vessel but no life jackets.

Search efforts began Saturday evening, were called off at 1 a.m. yesterday morning and resumed just after sunrise - the police agency using a 25-member team, seven vessels and two helicopters. The Coast Guard provided a C-130 aircraft, a helicopter and three vessels. After a second overnight break, it was to resume again about sunrise today, a police spokesman said.

Eleanor Merrill, in a statement through Marquardt, said her husband learned to sail when he was 7 years old and has sailed on the bay since 1958 - often by himself.

"If there was anyone who could captain a boat competently alone, it was Phil," she said. "He has sailed the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, the Adriatic Sea, and often in adverse conditions without incident. ... He just couldn't resist a sunny day with the wind at his back."

Marquardt said Merrill wouldn't normally wear a life vest.

He said Merrill frequented boat shows and resisted buying a new boat because he thought his Merrilly was in great shape.

Marquardt said the newspaper's staff is "in shock and disbelief that this could happen," having read about it on the paper's front page yesterday morning. "We're waiting, we're forever hopeful that Phil is still safe," he said. "Phil perseveres in some of the toughest circumstances."

Marquardt said that Merrill had undergone heart-bypass surgery a year ago and that "he was in good spirits, mentally and physically."

Merrill is a Baltimore native and a 1955 graduate of Cornell University. He completed Harvard University's Program for Management Development in 1963, and for much of that decade held a job as special assistant to the deputy secretary of state in Washington.

He bought what was then the Annapolis Evening Capital in 1968, and his publications through Capital-Gazette Communications Inc. include the Maryland Gazette, Bowie Blade-News, Crofton News-Crier, and West County News.

He bought Washingtonian magazine in 1979 and owned Baltimore magazine from 1977 to 1992.

Merrill's philanthropy reflects key aspects of his life - including $10 million in 2001 for what became the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism; $7.5 million in 2000 toward construction of the Philip Merrill Environmental Center as headquarters for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation; and a pledge of $4 million in 2003 to the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at the Johns Hopkins University.

In a 2001 interview with The Sun, after his gift to the journalism school, Merrill said he wanted to put money back into Maryland, where much of it was made.

"I don't see any reason not to give it away. I don't need it. We have enough," he said. "My three children have been educated and are all independent. We've got a place to live. I've got a 41-foot boat, and I don't need an 80-foot boat."

nia.henderson@baltsun.com laura.cadiz@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Richard Irwin and Associated Press contributed to this article.

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