Sinking remains a mystery; Boating: Though such mishaps are rare, a yacht recently went down off Tilghman Island. A charter boat came to the rescue.; Outdoors


The boat ran steadily north on Chesapeake Bay toward home port. Three- to four-foot seas helped push it along, and a steady southwest wind cooled the rising heat of a morning in early autumn.

The $200,000 boat was new, the day was still young and the crew aboard was experienced. But disaster lay ahead.

Abruptly the engines quit, the boat settled by the stern and sank. Those aboard had only time to make a single mayday call on the marine radio, grab life preservers and jump clear.

It was an unusual scenario faced by few skippers and crews of the more than 200,000 boats registered in Maryland.

But it happened on Sept. 24, when Karen Jurgensen and her husband, William L. Leary, found themselves bobbing in the water two miles off Tilghman Island.

Jurgensen, editor of USA Today, and Leary, a Washington attorney, could not be reached for comment on the sinking of the Marita II, an Albin 33+3 Express Trawler purchased this spring from Albin of the Chesapeake in Queen Anne's County.

But according to sources involved with their rescue and the recovery and inspection of their boat, the Marita II sank without immediately apparent cause.

Neither the Coast Guard nor the Natural Resources Police plans to investigate, spokesmen for the organizations said.

"They put out one mayday call only," said a Tilghman businesswoman who monitors radio traffic but did not wish to be identified. "But you can tell by the voices when they are in real trouble -- and I could tell right away they were."

As in many watermen's communities, family, friends and volunteer fire companies keep an ear to marine radio frequencies, responding quickly to possible trouble on the water.

Capt. Bud Harrison, a member of the Talbot County Council and former chief and current member of the Tilghman Volunteer Fire Co., said that often the Coast Guard or the Natural Resources Police simply can't get there in time.

Last May, for example, two boats sank on the same day, and all the people aboard were brought to shore by the charter boats Plan B and Lady Peggy.

"It does happen that boats get into trouble more often than it used to," said Harrison, a charter boat captain. "And it seems more often than not [charter boats] are the ones closest by and there first to help.

"Maybe it's because we are out there everyday. But whatever the reason is, I know those people aboard that trawler are lucky and glad Billy Bradshaw was close by."

Capt. Billy Bradshaw, who runs charter fishing parties out of Harrison's Chesapeake House and Fishing Center in Tilghman, had a party out that morning chumming for rockfish at Tilghman Reef.

"The wind was blowing 20 miles per hour, maybe 25," said Bradshaw, who has run charters on the bay for nearly four decades. "Conditions were not good, but they were not bad, either.

"Seas were averaging three feet, with a few of maybe four, but the tide was against the wind and that made it a little rougher."

Bradshaw said a woman aboard his boat, Hey Girt, noticed Marita II was sinking.

"She spotted it, and we pulled anchor and ran for them," said Bradshaw, who said he was about a half-mile from the Marita II, which rolled over before Hey Girt's anchor was up. "When we pulled them out of the water, they were in good shape, but they were in the water only about 10 minutes."

Although the boat's owners were saved, their two cats apparently were lost with the boat.

Jurgensen and Leary were not at immediate risk from hypothermia, according to the U.S. Coast Guard, which dispatched a rescue boat from a nearby station on Slaughter Creek, near Taylors Island.

Bradshaw said water surface temperature at Tilghman Reef was 62 degrees.

"We received a phone call from a third party saying that a boat was sinking and there were two people in the water," said Chief Randy Merrick of the Coast Guard Operations Center at Curtis Bay. "But before our unit could get to the scene, they were already ashore on Tilghman Island."

Neither Jurgensen nor Leary was seriously injured, although Leary reportedly banged his head while trying to untie a kayak aboard the Marita II. They also were unable to get into an inflatable boat.

"I don't think they had time to get into it," said Bradshaw. "By the time they realized they were sinking, it was too late. But personally, I think they had been taking on water and slowly sinking for quite some time."

Bradshaw said Jurgensen and Leary handled the situation well and appeared to be "experienced" boaters. Coast Guard records show she had previously owned another Albin trawler.

In Tilghman, where dozens of commercial, charter and pleasure boats tie up and hundreds more transit annually when entering or leaving the popular cruising grounds of the Choptank River, the sinking of the Marita II has caused a stir.

Since the boat was raised from 18 feet of water on Sept. 25, the owners, insurance and sales company representatives and the boat's designer have inspected the hull and systems of the Marita II.

Bill Gilmer, owner of Tow Jamm Marine, raised the Marita II, using four divers and 24,000 pounds of air bags.According to design specifications, the 33+3 Express Trawler is 36 feet long and displaces 18,000 pounds.

"And still it was an all-day job," said Gilmer. "And once we did have her up, she just wanted to roll over on her side."

So far it is not clear why a new, $200,000 boat built for extended coastal cruising sank like a stone.

Fred Peters, president of Albin Marine, said the sinking "is indeed a mystery."

"There are several possible contributing factors," said Peters, whose company introduced the 33+3 Express Trawler this year. "It is a brand new boat, but as of yet we have no inkling of what happened."

Designer Terry Compton did not return calls to his office in Rhode Island, and insurance surveyor Steve Mason was unavailable to comment on his preliminary findings.

Brent Albright, who owns Albin of the Chesapeake and was present when Compton inspected the Marita II, said a full inspection of the yacht showed all through-hull fittings and hoses were intact and tightly clamped and there was no visible damage to the hull.

"There are questions I am not ready or able to answer," Albright said. "I am not going to guess at it."

Sources close to the inspections said initial suspicions centered on the 5-inch exhaust outlets for water that cools the boat's engines. If an exhaust hose had come loose, cooling water and bay water might have accumulated rapidly in the bilge of the Marita II.

One source, who asked not to be identified, said another possibility is that, in a following sea, water might have been taken on through large air intake vents located on the both sides toward the rear of the hull.

Gilmer, whose company responded to 475 calls for help last year from its location at The Narrows, said, "With boats, the whole apparatus is in a saltwater environment, and you're sure to have some kind of problems -- and having a new boat doesn't mean you won't have them, either."

Metal and plastic underwater fittings can corrode or crack, hose clamps can break or work themselves free from generally unseen connections, engines and outdrives can fail.

The best way to prevent problems, Gilmer said, is regular inspections of all operating equipment and safety gear aboard and having the knowledge to operate and repair it.

"There really is no normal breakdown. You never know what you are going to get out there," Gilmer said. "But this stuff can happen to you or I or anybody."

A recent study by BOAT/U.S. Marine Insurance shows that 30 percent of all open-water sinkings are caused by swamping after taking water over the sides or back of a boat.

Leaks in through-hull fittings -- inlets or outlets for sinks, toilets, baitwells, for example, -- caused 18 percent of open-water sinkings. Leaks in raw water cooling systems and exhaust and missing drain plugs caused 24 percent.

Groundings caused 10 percent, and 6 percent were caused by hulls splitting open when boats slammed into waves.

And for every boat that sinks while under way, the survey found, four boats sink at the dock because that is where they spend a majority of time.

"When a boat leaves the dock, someone is aboard. Therefore, a leak is usually discovered and fixed before it sinks the boat," said Bob Adriance, BOAT/U.S. technical services director.

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