Ocean City scrambles as Earl whirls near

Boats lifted onto land; swimmers barred from deep water

  • Lifeguard Joya Canfield keeps an eye on the swimmers near the boardwalk beach area in Ocean City as Hurricane Earl makes its way to the coastal areas.
Lifeguard Joya Canfield keeps an eye on the swimmers near the… (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
September 01, 2010|By Julie Scharper, The Baltimore Sun

OCEAN CITY — — Boaters called the Sunset Marina with two kinds of questions Wednesday: Was it true that white marlin were biting in record numbers? And could their boats be hauled onto land before Hurricane Earl threatened the shore on Friday?

"The weather is going to turn fast," said marina manager Brian G. Tinkler, who expects to bring in as many as 100 vessels before the storm strikes. "Wind is a huge concern. The tidal surge can push boats up above the pilings."

Workers pulled dozens of boats from the water Wednesday, hoisting 30-ton yachts with giant cranes and lifting smaller craft with machines resembling oversized forklifts. But many devoted fishermen wanted to spend one more day on the water before bringing in their boats.

"With the bite being so good, a lot of guys want to stay out there," said Tinkler, adding that one vessel from the marina had reeled in 56 marlin earlier this week.

As Earl spun toward the coast of North Carolina Wednesday, officials and residents here scrambled to prepare the Eastern Shore resort town for a close brush with the storm on the eve of one of the busiest weekends of the summer.

With riptides roiling the surf, lifeguards barred swimmers from entering water deeper than their knees. Residents lugged furniture in from patios and decks, and officials reviewed evacuation plans in the unlikely event the storm were to change course and take aim for Maryland.

Forecasters predicted the hurricane would pass about 200 miles off the coast Friday, bringing high winds and rain.

But it was difficult to imagine the storm's arrival Wednesday as a hot sun bore down on the boardwalk. Children chased sea gulls along the sand and kites wove high in the clear, bright sky. Families sprawled on blankets, savoring Thrasher's french fries and soft ice cream cones while keeping an eye on the surf churned by the still-distant hurricane.

"It's a little bit deceiving, because it's beautiful out there," said Lt. Ward Kovacs of the Ocean City Beach Patrol. He urged swimmers to stay near lifeguards and to keep out of the water when guards are not on duty.

Swimmers will likely be barred from entering deeper water today, Kovacs said, and all swimming could be prohibited as Earl surges closer.

The sea has been rough since the weekend, when one man drowned and 500 swimmers had to be rescued by lifeguards. Kovacs said the approaching storm has exacerbated the riptides that are common in late summer.

"We're seeing the first part of the effects of the hurricane," he said. "As as the storm gets closer, it's only going to get worse."

Ocean City officials will decide today whether to open an emergency operations center, said Joseph Theobald, the city's director of emergency services.

Workers will likely close the sea gates along the sand dunes to minimize the effects of storm surges, remove beach trash cans and other objects that could be tossed by heavy winds, he said.

Ocean City has not been evacuated since Hurricane Gloria hit in 1985, and it appears unlikely that Earl will veer close enough to necessitate clearing people out, Kovacs said. But officials have drawn up plans for such an event, including removing some 5,000 European students who hold seasonal jobs at the beach.

Meanwhile, boardwalk bars sold hurricane drink specials, the Breakfast Cafe on Ocean Gateway offered "hurricane omelets," and shops advertised sales on windbreakers and umbrellas.

Ocean City spokeswoman Donna Abbott said Earl's likely impact on tourism during the ordinarily lucrative Labor Day weekend is unclear. Officials are urging visitors to avoid driving during the height of the storm, but hope that the sunny skies currently forecast for Saturday, Sunday and Monday will lure travelers to the Shore.

"Hopefully, there won't be a total washout," said Abbott.

At least one group of residents is eager for Earl's arrival: surfers. Mike Weston, a plumber with shaggy blond hair and a deep tan, turned down a weekend job in Washington to take advantage of the waves.

"These are definitely the best waves of the summer, high and clean," said Weston. He plans to surf today near Assateague Island and head back out once Earl has blown through.

"The best time to surf is right after a hurricane passes," he said.

At the marina, Bill Phillips scrubbed algae from the hull of his boat, No Patience, after it was hauled onto land. The Middletown, Del., resident had come to Ocean City to tend to the boat and carry in furniture from the porch of his vacation home.

"Everyone says it's not going to be bad, but I'm not taking a chance," he said.

Workers piloted Russ Garufi's 62-foot yacht into a contraption the size of a small house, positioned it in a massive sling and hauled up the 30-ton boat with a system of pulleys. Drops of water sparkled on the bow of the ship under the bright sun.

Garufi, a custom yacht builder, wanted to be sure the boat he crafted over two years was on land before Earl's arrival. Storm surges can loosen pilings and unmoor small boats, leading to smashed hulls, he said.

The Ocean City resident has seen the damage a storm can wreak on the peninsula. Gloria flooded his yard, leading him to scramble across a 40-foot ladder to reach his boat, he said.

Like many of his neighbors, he said he won't be able to rest until Earl has passed by.

"If it turns just a little bit, we're liable to get the brunt of it," he said. "I don't want to see the place get torn up."

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

twitter.com/juliemore

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