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Answering the SOS call on the Chesapeake

Capt. Dave DuVall is a fixture on the water off Annapolis. Easing his bright yellow boat through the crowds of boaters in Back Creek, DuVall waves and greets just about everyone.

In his 20th year as the owner of the local Sea Tow franchise, he goes on patrol daily, ready to offer assistance to boaters in "nonemergency" trouble.

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Since 1984, a year after the U.S. Coast Guard stopped towing boaters unless they were in danger, DuVall has made his living by solving problems, hence the name of his boat, Distress Reliever.

His Sea Tow franchise includes two boats in Annapolis, one in Kent Narrows, and the yellow paint is drying on a fourth boat that will serve the Cambridge area.

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On one Sunday afternoon, the mouth of the Severn River is choked with all kinds of recreational boats. Wakes from the powerboats that are zipping and darting add an element of confusion to the two-foot chop ruffled up by the stiff southwest breeze. DuVall scans the scene and pronounces it quiet.

Aboard the Distress Reliever, it is anything but quiet. Three VHF radios squawk constantly, and the cell phone rings often. Members of Sea Tow or BoatUS, another towing company that is sort of a marine version of AAA, pay an annual membership fee and are entitled to unlimited free towing. Members will call Sea Tow directly for assistance.

DuVall says his company answers about 300 calls a year. Many are simply vessels out of gas.

If an unaffiliated boater finds himself out of gas, or aground, he has two options. He can solicit the assistance of a Good Samaritan or put out a request to hire help: hence the three radios squawking.

The Chesapeake Bay area is often considered the most organized in the country when it comes to divvying up the business of nonemergency distress calls, DuVall says.

The Chesapeake Maritime Towing and Assistance Association, of which Sea Tow is a member, has a response system that links boaters with the help they need quickly, even if it is a competitor who winds up answering the call.

Instead of racing each other to a boater, the association members (along with the Coast Guard) monitor a working channel on the VHF where general assistance calls are offered to the closest towing boat.

'Five o'clock follies'

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Nearing what DuVall calls the "5 o'clock follies," one such call came across the hailing and distress frequency, Channel 16.

"This is the vessel Sea Pro, we seem to have something entangled in our prop and we will need a tow."

Quickly, a voice responds from TowBoat/US asking the vessel to switch to the working frequency and asks his location.

"We are looking at the towers here off of Annapolis, south of the Bay Bridge," says the Sea Pro's captain, Waymon Lefall of Baltimore.

DuVall is just north, off Hackett Point and within easy reach of the towers at Greenbury Point, so he swings the 29-foot boat around. The TowBoat/US dispatcher puts out the call to check which patrol is closest to the Sea Pro.

DuVall comes on the radio and tells Lefall that he will be at his side in five minutes. Assessing the vessel's exact location, he asks if the captain has an anchor out and asks that the captain and his passenger don lifejackets.

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He determines that the 26-foot fishing boat has gotten into shallow water and picked up a crabpot that is wrapped around the propeller. The engine is completely useless.

A 'hairy' situation

His tone is calm and reassuring as he solicits the information he needs to begin to devise a strategy.

"This could get hairy fast," says DuVall as the Sea Pro comes into view, bobbing dangerously close to the rock-lined shore of Greenbury Point.

"The wind is blowing right into the shore, and if we pick up a crabpot we will both be in trouble," Duvall says.

The depth finder on the Distress Reliever begins to sound alarms as the boat enters the shallows.

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"Captain, I am going to ask you to send your crew forward to the bow to catch my line so we can get you out of here, and we will arrange our tow in deeper water," DuVall says in measured but urgent tones.

Without mishap, the Sea Pro is soon under tow and headed toward its homeport in Bodkin Creek.

After the Sea Pro is safely delivered to its marina in Bodkin Creek, DuVall steps on the dock to watch as the boat is pulled out of the water. Lefall and his crewman shake hands with DuVall and thank him.

"After I went diving to see what was entangled in my prop, I knew I wasn't going anywhere without a tow," Lefall said.

When the Sea Pro was picked out of the water by the forklift, a tangle of wire mesh, once a crabber's trap, was completely choking the propeller.

"You see now why I called," Lefall said.


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