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The Sudden Wrath of the Bay


If there is a lesson to be drawn from the tragic sinking of a Maryland fishing charterboat that killed two people Sunday, it is that the shallow, placid Chesapeake Bay can swiftly reveal its powerful and dangerous darker side.

Gale force winds thrashed the El Toro II and crashing 8-foot waves pried apart the planks of her hull, flooding the engine room and killing the pumps designed to bail out the leaking boat. Survivors spent two hours bobbing in the cold, raging waters near the mouth of the Potomac River before being rescued by helicopter and boats.

The timely, coordinated response of the Coast Guard, Maryland State Police, the Naval Air Station and local volunteer fire and rescue companies averted a larger tragedy.

Their admirable efforts were truly heroic. Petty Officer Kirk Machovec jumped from a helicopter into the choppy waters and swam to aid the victims. Rescuers pitched through the storm in small rafts to drag the injured from the waters. Emergency ambulance volunteers lay on hypothermia victims to quickly transfer needed body heat.

There is no immediate indication of safety violations. The radio was working and the charterboat captain was an experienced waterman. But there is the disturbing suggestion that severe weather advisories apparently went unheeded by the 60-foot vessel that was sailing into Virginia waters to catch rockfish. The National Weather Service marine broadcast carried a small craft advisory nearly five hours before El Toro II left Ridge, in St. Mary's County. A half-hour after the vessel set out, the weather service broadcast the first gale warning of 35-knot winds and waves up to 6 feet from Point Lookout southward.

Belying these portents, the winds had calmed, the rain had let up and the skies brightened. It was the deceptive center of the storm. Two hours before the sinking boat issued a Mayday call for help, the back of the storm swept through the estuary with a vengeance, creating waves that approached hurricane proportions.

Other fishing boats set out that morning in the same area, but returned to safe harbor as the roiling storm worsened. The El Toro II did not, trapped and disabled by the fickle cruelty of nature, and two men died in her violent demise.

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