Gliding and learning in the state's $4.3 million floating laboratory


ABOARD THE R/V RACHEL CARSON - There may be a swifter, quieter, smoother ride on the Chesapeake Bay, but you'd have to know a dolphin to snag one.

With a cold front bearing down and sheets of rain showing up in yellow and green waves on the radar, the state's new 81-foot research vessel, cruised lickety-split from Solomons to Annapolis for yesterday's christening.

Two hours and change (like two pennies and a nickel) - 45 nautical miles - from dock to dock.

Capt. Mike Reusing, the maestro at the controls of the $4.3 million floating laboratory, maintained a steady 21-knot pace, powered by twin jet-propulsion engines.

"I'm still learning," says Reusing, who was a member of the crew that ferried the state's last research boat from the Gulf of Mexico to the bay in 1972.

But learning is what the Carson is all about. The vessel will be used by scientists and students at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science to gather information and conduct experiments from the mouth of the bay to Susquehanna Flats up top.

"This will not only allow us to catch up with the rest of the country and the world, but leapfrog them," says Donald Boesch, president of UMCES.

The Carson has more than twice the interior lab space as the last boat, the Aquarius, a converted oil rig crew taxi. It can hoist or lower 4,200 pounds between the spacious aft deck and the water. Reusing can sneak the boat into tributaries 5 feet deep.

It even has cup holders.

"They threw those in, gratis," says Reusing, a small smile on his face.

The boat moves almost silently away from the Solomons dock and glides toward the mouth of the Patuxent River. Once the bow points north, Reusing opens the throttles and the jets respond, pushing out powerful plumes of water, like a hot tub, but more so. "That would invigorate you," says Carson crewman Jeff Cook, peering over the stern.

The only thing keeping us company at dawn were a couple of cargo ships and a charter boat or two trolling for striped bass - more about rockfish later.

Once at City Dock, Maryland first lady Katie O'Malley christened the boat with a bottle of champagne. The glass was no match for the sturdy hull. Seven times the bottle clunked hollowly against the aluminum before it finally shattered.

But truth is, the Carson already christened herself at the Ontario boatyard in October. While being moved to the water, the bow smacked the bottle dangling on a rope from the deck, sending a frothy white foam down the blue and red hull. The Carson still has that new-car smell. I'm guessing it won't be long before the boat, for better or worse, smells like the bay. Speaking of rockfish - remember paragraph 12 - Keith Wilson of Crownsville landed what can either be described as 1) a wall-hanger; or 2) dinner for 25.

Fishing last Sunday on Capt. Steve Barko's charter boat Taurus out of Solomons, Wilson landed a 57.8-pound, 53 1/2 -inch striper near Hooper Island Light. The fish had a girth of 30.5 inches.

"We thought we had a nice fish, but it stayed deep until it got up to the boat. Then we saw the belly and we knew it was a rockfish," Barko says, pausing. "We just didn't know it was a rockfish that big."

Barko adds there are other big fish out there right now. So why are you sitting there reading this?

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