Md. marinas hard hit by tropical storm

Charles Cao, owner of Middle Branch Marina, inspects a boat that was damaged during the storm. Although their businesses were affected, boatyard owners say they're grateful nobody was hurt.
Charles Cao, owner of Middle Branch Marina, inspects a boat that was damaged during the storm. Although their businesses were affected, boatyard owners say they're grateful nobody was hurt. (Sun photo by Algerina Perna)
Charles Cao has good reason to feel awful. The pleasantly ramshackle South Baltimore boatyard he owns, Middle Branch Marina, took a huge hit from Tropical Storm Isabel.

The wind and waves turned two piers with 100 boat slips into so much mangled wood. Eight boats sank in the storm Sept. 19, and six ended up on a parking lot like beached whales. His office had 4 feet of water.

Yet Cao seemed oddly upbeat yesterday as he showed off the damage under a warm autumn sun. He laughed a lot, smiled constantly. He kidded boaters who had gotten scared during the storm's ferocious peak.

Why the happy face amid an estimated $1 million in destruction? "There's no choice," he said, his tone taking on a note of resignation. "No choice."

From Havre de Grace to southern Anne Arundel County, marina owners and boaters continued to assess the damage more than a week after Isabel roared through the region.

While news reports have focused on damaged, destroyed or powerless houses - and rightly so, say boaters - the storm ravaged marinas and the vessels docked at them.

Fixing damaged piers will easily run into millions of dollars. But whatever the toll, several marina owners said yesterday, they could grasp at the good news: Insurance will pay to rebuild. People themselves fared fine, by and large. Boats are replaceable. It could have been worse.

Not all boatyards suffered the same effects. By quirks of geography, design or just luck, some emerged merely dampened and are doing big business now selling fuel and pulling boats onto land. Other marinas, meanwhile, will be lucky to reopen by summer.

Some of the greatest devastation occurred at Herrington Harbour North in Tracy's Landing in southeastern Anne Arundel County. Four of 12 piers were destroyed, and 130 or so boats damaged, four of which sunk. Owner E. Steuart Chaney says damage will approach $4 million.

The 700-slip marina faces the Chesapeake Bay, and Chaney said he had tried to build a jetty, only to be stymied by community opposition. Without a barrier, the docks were exposed to a 6-foot storm surge early Sept. 19.

"It came in and hit those four piers directly, and a lot of the boats, their lines broke," he said. "Once they were free to go, they went. They tore into the pier. Two wound up on top of the pier."

But Chaney was grateful nobody was hurt at the marina and that about 200 boats were hauled out of the water beforehand.

At Bowleys Marina in the Bowleys Quarters section of Baltimore County, the storm took out part of a pier, sank a boat and "pretty badly beat up" several others, said Phil Ferenc, a 20-year-old boatyard worker.

"We had a sailboat come down on one of our piers," he said. "It was just resting there. The owner kind of pushed it off and broke the pier, and his rudder broke in half. We had to pull it out because it was taking on water."

Most boaters who would not, or could not, get their crafts out before the storm tied up as best they could. They doubled lines and added spring lines to keep boats from moving side to side.

The trick at marinas where docks are fixed and don't float was to tighten lines enough to keep boats from smacking piers, but not so tight that a rising tide might pull them under. A 24-foot powerboat that sank at Bowleys had its lines tied too tightly, Ferenc said.

At the Annapolis Maryland Capital Yacht Club in the city's Eastport section, business is over for the year. Most boats came through fine; not so the marina, with its sweeping views of the bay and the Naval Academy.

Isabel destroyed 100 feet of its 260-foot seawall as well as the walkway to two docks. Owners had to take dinghies out to their berths to move their boats to a functioning marina. "It's too dangerous" to stay open, said manager Jeff Miller. "We have no power, no electricity, no water - nothing to any of the docks."

In the northern section of the bay, Penn's Beach Marina in Havre de Grace now has an open-air shop and parts building, the storm having wiped out the concrete blocks that formed part of the wall.

The only boat still in the water during the storm belonged to marine mechanic Jim Collier. When its stern lines broke, the fiberglass bow took a 1-foot-by-3-foot gash.

The consolation, said Collier, is that "it's above the water line."

Cao at Middle Branch had several boats at his marina still decidedly below the water line. He pointed to a sunken 37-foot cabin cruiser. A few slips away was a submerged 40-foot houseboat, which Cao says should be salvageable.

Just feet from the parking lot, a 31-foot wooden powerboat lay half-submerged in its slip, battered at both ends.

"They'll have to cut it up," said Vince Zegowitz of Rockville, whose 31-foot trawler was not affected.

"Isn't that sad?" said his wife, Marianne Zegowitz.

Cao has several live-aboards, and some rode it out on their vessels. Frazier Baldwin was ready to don a lifejacket if his Hot Tub cabin cruiser seemed likely to go down.

Some of his lines snapped, though he did not realize it at the time because of the commotion in his storm-tossed boat. His big fear was landing on the little finger pier as the tide receded. "Turns out it was gone," he said.

His neighbor on G Dock, Thomas Hall, had no problems, either, despite being frightened at times. He used 16 lines to secure his steel-hulled, 46-foot sailboat Aquila. After spending 15 years restoring it, he was determined to keep the boat afloat.

Both will have to find another slip: G Dock is so twisted it must be replaced.

No such signs of damage were evident yesterday at Henderson's Wharf Marina in Fells Point. One difference there is that the docks float, so a rising tide lifts all boats and piers.

The only problem would be if the tide rose so high that the entire dock came loose from pilings and floated away. At Henderson's, the surge left pilings poking just two feet above water. Dave Graham was ready to cut his lines and motor his 40-foot trawler into the storm. That proved unnecessary and the boat came through fine.

One of the few bright spots for Cao was that the storm gave him a new way to make money. Before it hit, he pulled some boats out of the water and is now putting many of them back in. And damaged vessels may need to come out.

But Cao's business is nothing compared to the post-Isabel boom at Annapolis Harbor Boat Yard. Far enough up Spa Creek to avoid the worst impact, it is one of two Annapolis marinas with a working fuel dock and was besieged with business, said assistant dock master Alison LeBlanc.

While the marina had enough vacancies to move its most vulnerable boats to the most secure slips, LeBlanc and her husband headed for Baltimore's Inner Harbor on the 36-foot sailboat they call home.

They tied up at the Inner Harbor Marina near the Rusty Scupper. It, too, has a floating dock, but the surge got within a half-inch of the top of pilings. Worried, LeBlanc assembled her important things - passport, clothing, her cat.

"I had a ditch bag and was ready to evacuate," she said.

In the end, the water stopped rising.

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