Three men rescued after boat tips near Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant

Anglers clung to their boat while local fishing guide raced to scoop them out of freezing water

February 11, 2011|By Candus Thomson, The Baltimore Sun

When the winds howl out of the northeast, few anglers brave the whitecaps that roll across the Chesapeake Bay.

For three men, though, the urge to wet their lines near the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant on Thursday morning nearly cost them their lives when their small boat capsized and sent them scrambling for a tiny piece of the keel still poking above the water's freezing surface.

With the Coast Guard and Natural Resources Police nowhere near and the 10-minute window for survival closing, they were saved by Capt. Dennis Fleming, a fishing guide who says his fear of cold water is so great, "I won't get in a pool that's not 73 degrees."

In 25-knot winds and heavy seas, Fleming maneuvered his boat next to the drenched men while his passenger carefully guided them to the safety of the deck. The three men required treatment for hypothermia.

"If it weren't for our life jackets and Mr. Fleming, there would have been three body bags in the morgue," said Kevin Gladhill, 32, owner of the sunken boat. "It was the worst-case scenario with the best-case outcome."

Anglers love to gather at a place called "The Rips," near the nuclear plant's discharge to fish for striped bass. Boats jockey for position and fishing websites are decorated with smiling men holding up glistening fish with black racing stripes.

But on Thursday morning just before 8 a.m., there were just three boats riding out the fierce waves. Fleming, 51, of Mechanicsville, and his passenger, Terry Warhurst, 64, of Upper Marlboro; an unknown vessel; and a 21-foot open boat containing Gladhill, Michael Krall, 35, and Russell Neff III, 55, all of Washington County.

Gladhill said when he left Chesapeake Beach for the 19-mile run down the bay, winds were running out of the northwest at about 8 knots and seas were 1 foot.

The fishing was good but weather conditions were deteriorating. The winds shifted to the northeast.

Fleming said he and Warhurst were in the process of pulling out of the churning discharge area when he looked up and saw the 21-foot boat founder under the weight of a four-foot wave and flip.

"Their bow was lifting up and the back was filling with water. Before my eyes, it turtles, it flips 100 percent," Fleming said.

Gladhill, a Department of Defense police officer with extensive cold-weather training, said, "It was over in a second. There was nothing we could do."

Fleming's mind raced as he struggled pull in his lines and start the engine. He radioed Mayday to the Coast Guard and tried unsuccessfully to raise the third boat on Channel 16.

In minutes, he was alongside and could see the three men were up to their waists in water and beginning to show the effects of hypothermia. Luck kicked in. The low railings on Fleming's boat and a swim ladder on the stern provide an easy path to his deck.

But cold water had slowed the men's muscles and minds and they struggled with simple commands. Two made it with Warhurst's help and Fleming heaved the third onto his boat.

"I looked at him and said, 'Dude, you're alive,' " Fleming said.

Fleming raced north to Flag Harbor Yacht Center in St. Leonard, where an ambulance waited. The three men were treated at Calvert Memorial Hospital and were home by dinner time.

"There's a reason you sit in a classroom for 72 hours when you get your captain's license. I've thought about it a thousand times," Fleming said. "I was 100 percent prepared."

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