The extensive rescue effort to find missing publisher Philip Merrill turned to a recovery mission yesterday as authorities reached a grim conclusion: The former diplomat and longtime boating enthusiast likely drowned during a weekend sail trip on the Chesapeake Bay.
The Coast Guard and Maryland National Resources Police suspended rescue efforts for Merrill, 72, who was last seen leaving the dock of his Arnold home on the Severn River on Saturday afternoon. His 41-foot boat, which he boarded alone, was found unattended off Calvert County five hours later.
After being missing for more than 48 hours, authorities concluded Merrill could not have endured the bay's conditions - 69-degree water, winds from 18 to 33 knots and up to 4-foot waves - for such a prolonged period. Experts said Merrill was likely a victim of fatigue rather than hypothermia.
Recovery efforts were being concentrated in a 25-square-mile area within a section of the waterway stretching from the Bay Bridge in Annapolis to Plum Point, where authorities say it is likely Merrill's body will surface. A fleet of six vessels - one equipped with a sonar device - was being used to search the bay's floor.
"We're going to do everything we can to reach some sort of closure in this incident," said Col. Mark S. Chaney, superintendent of the Maryland Natural Resources Police. "Our folks will be working very, very hard."
The search could take quite some time, Chaney said, depending on currents, tide and water temperature. "A body typically rises at warmer temperatures," he said. "But once a body rises, it could go anywhere."
Merrill, chairman of Capital-Gazette Newspapers who lent his name to the University of Maryland's journalism school, often had a set sailing pattern that took him from his dock in Arnold, up through Asquith Creek, out on the Severn River, then straight across the bay to Kent Island; the round trip is about 18 to 20 miles, Chaney said.
"If he took his normal route, he should still be in this general area," Chaney said of the search area.
Merrill's blue-and-white boat was found 15 miles off course, near Plum Point. A small-craft advisory issued by the National Weather Service warning of high winds and large waves was in effect at the time of Merrill's excursion.
But some experts said that experienced sailors do not necessarily equate a small-craft advisory with danger.
"Most sailors take it as a heads-up, and that is the primary purpose of it," said David Reed, editor of Sailing World, a monthly magazine for boating enthusiasts. "It means get down to the dock and see if [the wind] is at your tolerance level. It is not an extreme thing."
The surface water temperature near the Bay Bridge was between 68 and 69 degrees Saturday afternoon, according to data collected by a Chesapeake Bay Observing System weather buoy, said Tim Koles, a buoy technician with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. Doctors and hypothermia experts said a person can survive for several hours in 69-degree seas.
"It is not real cold water," said Dr. Alan Steinman, a former director of health and safety for the Coast Guard. "It is unlikely that it is going to be hypothermia that will be the end point; it will probably be fatigue from fighting the rough seas."
When a person is immersed in water that is colder than body temperature, he begins losing body heat. This becomes dangerous when a person's core body temperature - the temperature of the brain, lungs and heart - falls below 95 degrees Fahrenheit, Steinman said. A person will start to shiver and, as muscles get colder, a person will lose the ability to grip objects.
When the brain temperature drops, a person loses judgment and, eventually, consciousness, Steinman said.
Steinman guessed that a person could survive for five hours in 69-degree water, but noted that people usually drown because of exhaustion before they die of hypothermia in such temperatures.
Dr. Lorentz Wittmers, a professor at the University of Minnesota who has researched hypothermia for 30 years, said wearing a lifejacket is helpful in slowing hypothermia because it keeps a person's head dry and out of the water. The lifejacket also keeps a person afloat and able to conserve energy.
It is not known whether Merrill was wearing a lifejacket when he apparently fell into the water, but his wife has said that he normally did not wear them when sailing. Wittmers declined to speculate specifically how long a person could survive in 69-degree water but said it would have been "many hours." Age, he said, does play a role in survival times.
"The older you get, the worse your temperature regulation gets," he said.
As the search for Merrill's body continues, Chaney said sonar search efforts would be expanded. By yesterday afternoon, officials had searched about 8 1/2 miles of the bay's floor with sonar.
The yellow torpedo-shaped sonar device is about 3 1/2 feet long and connected by a cable to a monitor in a boat. It is moved about 3 feet above the bay floor and can detect objects within a 100-foot radius. The sonar is towed slowly, and it could take weeks to comb the entire area, Chaney said.
Meanwhile, at The Capital, Merrill's flagship Annapolis newspaper, the mood yesterday was somber.
"It's obviously very unusual to be reporting a story like this," said Tom Marquardt, the paper's executive editor. "It presents some challenges, that's for sure. We want to handle it delicately and with respect. In the newsroom, there is a sense of disbelief."
Marquardt said that staff looked forward to the Monday morning executive meetings, when Merrill would chit-chat and tell stories about his weekend adventures.
"It seemed very strange to see his chair empty," he said. "It was pretty somber."
Marquardt said that Merrill's wife, Eleanor, and his children did not want to speak to reporters yesterday because "we're all still waiting for closure." The Merrills were briefed in the morning by Natural Resources Police, Marquardt said, and they understood that it was unlikely that Merrill would be found alive.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which has a photo of Merrill and a statement on its Web site, had six boats out Sunday morning and also had several boats out yesterday assisting in the search. They were mostly the powerboats of bay foundation staff members, said John Surrick, a spokesman.
"Mrs. Merrill requested our assistance and we offered to have our staff help out," he said.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. issued a statement yesterday saying that he was "deeply saddened" to learn that Merrill was reported missing.
"I have directed that the dedicated staff of the Maryland Natural Resources Police continue to devote all appropriate resources to the search and recovery effort," the governor stated. "My heartfelt prayers go out to his family during this difficult and uncertain time."
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Sun reporter Anica Butler contributed to this article.